Interest (Curiosity)

The core of our existence

During the past year, we have been exploring the three pillars of development: feelings, language, and cognition.  

We are currently immersed in feelings, particularly our earliest feelings—the embryology of our emotional life.  

Feelings are hugely important. Feelings lead to behaviors. In our last month’s newsletter – April 2014 – we discussed physical punishment. Physical punishment occurs when the relationships between feelings and behaviors are misunderstood.  

Over the next several months, we will explore more deeply what may be our two most significant feelings: interest and anger. We will start with interest (curiosity). 


We return briefly to Darwin. Darwin, in his 1872 Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, was eager to demonstrate the similarities of emotional expressions between man and animals. He showed how animals seem to manifest expressions of fear, distress, anger, disgust, and enjoyment, among others.  

However, Darwin said little about curiosity or interest; neither is even listed in his index. Indeed, Tomkins stated that Darwin missed the affect of interest. Tomkins noted: “The affect of interest or excitement is, paradoxically, absent from Darwin’s catalogue of emotions. Although Darwin dealt with surprise and meditation, the more sustained affect of interest per se was somehow overlooked” (1962, p. 337).  

I do not entirely agree with Tomkins on this point. Darwin does use the term attention to refer to what might be considered the affect of interest. When speaking of dogs, he noted: “…if his attention be suddenly aroused, he instantly pricks his ears to listen…” (Darwin, 1872 [Ekman, 1998, p. 283]). Darwin then turned to humans: “When the attention is concentrated for a length of time with fixed earnestness on any object or subject, all the organs of the body are forgotten and neglected… Therefore, many of the muscles tend to become relaxed, and the jaw drops from its own weight… Or again, if an attention continues long and earnestly absorbed, all our muscles become relaxed, and the jaw, which was at first suddenly opened, remains dropped. Thus, several causes concur towards this same movement, whenever surprise, astonishment or amazement is felt” (p. 284).  

To put these passages in context, it should be noted that Darwin here is wrestling with why the mouth is open during surprise. He considers such possibilities as increased hearing, increased breathing capacity, and relaxation of jaw muscles. However, what he has described is the affect of interest, with the mouth being open somewhat. He has also linked up attention with surprise, which is consistent with Tomkins’ idea of interest, fear, and surprise all being related: they all depend on the rapidity of stimulus increase. As noted previously, surprise is elicited by the more rapid stimulus increase, fear next, and interest by yet slower incoming stimuli.  

Thus, Darwin did not seem to separate out interest as explicitly as later researchers did. However, he clearly described it to some extent as “attention” in relationship to surprise, astonishment, and amazement. 

Recent Work

Tomkins and his colleagues now come on the scene. Tomkins, unlike Darwin, is very clear about the importance of interest. “It is interest … which is primary,” he wrote. Interest “supports both what is necessary for life and what is possible” (1962, pp. 342 and 345). Carroll Izard, an early collaborator of Tomkins, has written an overlooked, wonderfully detailed discussion of the history and significance of interest (1977).  

As noted previously, Tomkins suggested interest, fear, and surprise were closely related. They are all activated by the rate at which stimulation, or neural firing, increases. In this model, surprise is activated by a critical rate of increase in the density of neural firing. The difference between surprise and interest is a difference in the steepness of the gradient of stimulation. Whether a stimulus activates surprise or interest will depend on just how rapidly the density of stimulation increases.  

So, a sudden unexpected gunshot will usually evoke surprise rather than interest. However, depending on the rate of stimulus increase, surprise, fear, or interest might be activated. The brain represents an information-processing system (Basch, 1988). The older the human being, the more experience is linked up with specific stimulation patterns. What matters, then, is not just the rapidity of the incoming stimulus, but the perceptual system with which that stimulus interacts. Therefore, a sudden gunshot might trigger surprise, but, depending on circumstances, experience, and expectations, a gunshot might trigger fear or interest instead. Or, consider the sudden appearance of a face. Depending on the rapidity and familiarity of the face, such an appearance might trigger surprise, or fear, or interest, or some sequence, such as surprise then interest.


The affect of interest is important because it leads to learning and adaptation to new situations and information. The human brain is stimulus-seeking. We want to enhance the interest affect, our curiosity, in order to learn, to discover, to adapt. The responses of caregivers to infants and children can either enhance interest or constrict it. Similarly, later in life, teachers or bosses can stimulate or restrict interest and curiosity. Creativity and discoveries come from curiosity; that is, interest/excitement. Reactions such as fear, or surprise, or disgust can be shifted to interest, thus enhancing learning.

Interest and Enjoyment

There is an intriguing relationship between interest and enjoyment. Enjoyment is triggered by a relatively steep reduction of the density of stimulation and neural firing. Tomkins suggested: “In the case of pain, fear and distress, the smile of joy is a smile of relief. In the case of sudden anger reduction, it is the smile of triumph. The same principle operates with the sudden reduction of pleasure, as after the orgasm or completion of a good meal, there is often the smile of pleasure” (1962, p. 371).  

Enjoyment and interest can oscillate rapidly. Enjoyment can be activated by anticipation of what has previously triggered excitement, when the recognition of familiarity of the exciting experience in imagination suddenly reduces this excitement. Tomkins provided some examples (1962). Say you are working on an interesting project. There will usually be a series of oscillations between the interest in novel ideas and the enjoyment of thinking them through and solving problems. So long as a combination of new ideas and solutions continues, your interest will remain alive. When you run out of new possibilities, you will lose interest. In addition, enjoyment can be activated by the anticipation of what has previously given excitement—when the recognition of the familiarity of the exciting experience in imagination suddenly reduces excitement.  

Or suppose a baby sees a face. Depending on past experience and rapidity of the appearance of the face, surprise or fear might emerge first. Then perhaps interest would be seen, and, if the face is familiar and not scary, one will see the smile of enjoyment because of the reduction of interest, or fear, or the information processing ceases. Similarly, humor provides another example. It is the sudden unexpectedness of the punchline which both surprises and terminates further increasing information processing.  

The reciprocal interaction of the positive affects of interest and enjoyment [is] seen to be at the root of sustained interest—our careers, relationships, and so on. Or as Tomkins noted: “The reciprocal interplay between excitement and enjoyment are of critical significance in the creation of familiar objects, of long-term commitments” (1962, p. 368).    

Additional Ideas

There are many different ways to conceptualize and understand feelings and emotional life. Currently, Paul Ekman is one of the best known investigators of emotions. A student of Tomkins, Ekman was encouraged by Tomkins to conduct cross-cultural studies of emotions. Ekman concluded certain feelings were innate and that the expressions of the basic feelings were universally recognized throughout various cultures. Data from infant research support the idea that there are several innate feelings which combine with each other and with experience to form our complex emotional life.  

Ekman, however, primarily studied adults. He explores our later, more complex emotional life, and he pays little attention to infancy. This work leads him to see things a bit differently from Tomkins. Ekman suggested interest and excitement were different, rather than excitement being a more intense form of interest as Tomkins proposed. Interest “is largely cerebral, a thinking state, rather than an emotion,” Ekman wrote (2003, p. 193). Excitement, he felt, arises in response to novelty or challenge.  

He also differs with respect to enjoyment, although what Ekman calls “relief” is very close to Tomkins’ definition of enjoyment. Relief, wrote Ekman, “is the emotion felt when something that had strongly aroused our emotions subsides” (2003, p. 193). Fear is a frequent precursor of relief, as is excitement, Ekman tells us. Ekman also distinguishes between surprise and startle, suggesting that surprise is an emotion and startle is a physical reflex. Tomkins suggested startle was the intense form of surprise.  

As one reads Ekman’s descriptions, it becomes clearer that he is dealing with blends of affects and experience in adults. His basic descriptions of interest and curiosity are very similar to Tomkins.    


Neurobiology also has a place in this discussion. Exciting research by many talented scientists has been conducted on the neurobiology of emotions. Names such as Dasmasio, Le Doux, Panksepp, and Schore are among them. This type of research has tended to support the idea of categorical affects, i.e. biological structures and pathways which mediate specific feeling states such as fear, anger, distress … and interest or curiosity.  

Jaak Panksepp (1998, 2004) has done an excellent job of integrating the information on animal models with the interest affect. Panksepp noted that, traditionally, all motivated behavior tends to be divided into appetitive and consummatory components. That is, first one must seek out and approach the material resources needed for survival; and, second, one must consume them once they’d been found (eat, drink, or carry the items home).  

Panksepp coined the term SEEKING system (the capital letters are his) to refer to the feeling of interest or curiosity. Panksepp contended that the “SEEKING system appears to control appetitive activation—the search, foraging, and investigatory activities—that all animals must exhibit before they are in a position to emit consummatory behaviors” (Panksepp, 1998, p. 146). Panksepp suggested research shows that the SEEKING system is mediated by dopamine circuits, in particular the medial forebrain bundle of the lateral hypothalamus. This psychobehavioral state can be evoked with localized brain stimulation in this area.    


We have begun our exploration of what may be the most important affect humans possess: interest. This is no small issue. Whether interest is helped to flourish or is constricted has a huge impact on the child’s future. Next time we will discuss very specific implications of dealing with interest in parent/child interactions and development.

References for Interested Readers

Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.
Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Panksepp J (ed) (2004). Textbook of Biological Psychiatry. Hoboken NJ: Wiley-Liss, Inc.
Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tomkins SS (1962). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume I): The Positive Affects. New York: Springer.

Quote of the Month

Interest/excitement is “that affect which has been most seriously neglected… The function of this very general positive affect is to ‘interest’ the human being in what is necessary and in what is possible for him to be interested in…”
 – Silvan S. Tomkins, 1962 (pp. 337, 342, emphasis in original). 

Articles of the Month

  1. Günter M (2014). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): An affect-processing and thought disorder? Int J Psychoanal 95: 43-66. Another fine article which asks us to consider how the early mismanagement of the infant and young child’s feelings might contribute to ADHD.  
  2. Holden GW et al (2014, April 14). Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. Click to Read Article >
    A remarkable study which uses audio recorders rather than self-report to study physical punishment. The “take-away”? Physical punishment in the home may be much more prevalent than thought.
    Nearly all studies of physical punishment are based on self-report data. This remarkable new investigation used audio recorders to collect information about U.S. family interactions. Thirty-three families were studied for 4-6 days, with an average of about 13 hours of recordings per family. About 61% were white, 25% African-American, 11% Hispanic, and 3% Other. About 32% had attended some college or vocational school, 32% were college graduates, and 29% had advanced degrees or training.
    • A total of 41 physical punishment incidents were heard in 15 of the 33 families.
    • “In about three-quarters of the incidents, parents hit their children for extraordinarily mundane social convention offenses, rather than serious infractions… Most poignantly, one child was slapped for turning the pages of a storybook.”
    • The rate of physical punishment far exceeded prior estimations or previously published findings. For example, American parents reported they spanked or slapped their children an average of 18 times per year. Here, subjects “at the median frequency would be striking their children 18 times within one week!” (emphasis in original).

Dr. Holinger's Recommended Books of the Month

Two terrific classics by a marvelous author/illustrator! 

                       I Meant to Clean My Room Today

I Meant to Clean My Room Today Written and illustrated by Miriam Nerlove

Flowers on the Wall

Flowers on the Wall Written and illustrated by Miriam Nerlove

You are reading

Great Kids, Great Parents

Language Development

Beyond the toddler years

The Educational Surprise of My Life: Community College

A reflection on Year One of living and learning.

When Children Begin to Talk

Language represents a huge developmental leap.