the need to know



“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves…”–Aristotle (Metaphysics, Book 1)[i]   (note that these are distinct kinds of things:  Aristotle distinguishes “things that are good in themselves” from “useful things,”  the sensual, the aesthetic… (Nicomachean Ethics 1:6) (art used to be called autotelic—self-reinforcing. but of course, we in A&O know about needs that it meets)



Knowledge is Power.”  “All of us have felt the pleasure of acquiring information—a view of a dramatic landscape, a conversation with a friend, or even a good magazine article, can all be profoundly gratifying. But why is this so? What makes these experiences so pleasurable? // We believe that the enjoyment of such experiences is deeply connected to an innate hunger for information: Human beings are designed to be “infovores.” It’s a craving that begins with a simple preference for certain types of stimuli, then proceeds to more sophisticated levels of perception and cognition that draw on associations the brain makes with previous experiences. When the hunger becomes even moderately starved, boredom sets in.”  (Biederman, Irving & Vessel, Edward A. 2006).   The neuroscience of this hunger for knowledge is becoming known: see more on infovory


MEETING NEEDS can be satisfying, even intensely pleasurable.  As the researchers of infovory notes, those feelings have a good neurobehavioral grounding.

Also, NEEDS and STRESS are related:  The stress response is more-or-less evoked by any real-or-perceived challenge to meeting a real-or-perceived NEED.This response is coordinated with motivation systems which will “energize” an organism’s resources to cope with challenge and restore homeostasis.   Some of the the endocrine responses to STRESS are also evoked in COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, which can range from modest through urgent.  For example, any mismatch between inner perception and outer phenomena –commonly a change the provides perceived novelty of more-or-less urgency.   


HOW does the NEED to KNOW fit in with our biological interpretation of Maslow’s NEED HIERARCHY?


  • DEVELOPMENT.  e.g., children’s questions likely contribute significantly to their cognitive development:   “Preschoolers’ questions may play an important role in cognitive development. When children encounter a problem with their current knowledge state (a gap in their knowledge, some ambiguity they do not know how to resolve, some inconsistency they have detected), asking a question allows them to get targeted information exactly when they need it. This information is available to them when they are particularly receptive to it, and because it comes as the result of their own disequilibrium, it may have depth of processing benefits.   … However, the role of children’s questions in their cognitive development has been largely overlooked. If questions are a force in cognitive development, the following must be true: (1) children must actually ask questions that gather information; (2) children must receive informative answers to their questions if they are able to be of use to cognitive development; (3) children must be motivated to get the information they request, rather than asking questions for other purposes such as attention; (4) the questions children ask must be relevant and of potential use to their cognitive development; (5) we must see evidence that children’s questions help them in some way-that is, that they can ask questions for a purpose, and use the information they receive purposefully to successfully achieve some change of knowledge state.” (from Chouinard 2007)[i]

FAIR to ASK how much of the need to know is (at any specific moment) developmentally emergent or if the need is evoked as part of a calculated strategy of problem solving. Could the proximate mechanism be a means of mitigating cognitive dissonance… and could the sensitivity to dissonance be a developmentally mediated phenomenon?  The sophisticated caregiver or teacher will work to create a NEED to KNOW, which may resonably be internalized such that individuals create their own need.  At this point we need to consut the DEEP ethology of CURIOSITY and the EXPLORATORY impulses.


To KNOW and to be KNOWN: these are arguably amongst our greatest needs

“I now perceive one immense omission in my Psychology, the deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated, and I left it out altogether from the book, because I had never had it gratified till now.”(William James 1842-1910, Letter to his class at Radcliffe College, 6 Apr. 1896, in Letters (1920) vol. 2, p. 33)


In matters of confidence about knowing who you are, Herman Melville was insecure about Moby Dick, until he heard from his friend:

“A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book.” (Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, July 1851)

The “voices” of some friends or family–those that you cannot consult in person, those that may no longer be alive–are so deeply internalized  they become Listening Angels. The conversation in your head can be hugely important when some of the variables are ambiguous: more about LISTENING ANGELS from a diary entry.


[i]Children’s questions: a mechanism for cognitive development  Michael M Chouinard  2007. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev . 2007;72(1):vii-ix, 1-112; discussion 113-26. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5834.2007.00412.x.PMID: 17394580  DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5834.2007.00412.x 


[i] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I, 980a.21. 350 BC  http://www.classicallibrary.org/aristotle/metaphysics/index.htm

[ii]Infovory.  Biederman, Irving & Vessel, Edward A. (2006) Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain. American Scientist. 94(3), 247-253. [PDF] http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/num2/2006/3/perceptual-pleasure-and-the-brain/1 A neurobehavioral elaboration of Aristotle: “All men by nature desire to know.” (Metaphysics, Book 1)