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Of Interest

One of the questions that have plagued my insomniac nights over the past decade or so is what makes something interesting. There are many proposals. I was reminded of this when I recently read this in Yohan J. John’s essay on cell membranes and boundaries:

We have a name for the drive towards the unknown — it’s called curiosity. Jürgen Schmidhuber, an artificial intelligence researcher, has a theory of “computational aesthetics” that offers us a vivid mathematical analogy for curiosity. The theory can be summed up in one bold assertion: that interestingness is the “first derivative” of beauty. Readers who detect a whiff of scientific imperialism will hopefully bear with me as I unpack this idea, which need not be taken as anything more than playful speculation. I admit, colloquial and intuitive concepts like “beauty” or “interestingness” often get bent out of shape a bit when scientists examine them, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we need to distance ourselves from our intuitions to discern their outlines more clearly.

According to Schmidhuber’s computational theory of aesthetics, the subjective beauty of a thing is defined as the minimum number of bits required to describe it. Since descriptions vary from person to person, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A definition of beauty based on bits of information is not in itself particularly alluring, but it can be improved if we see it as an attempt to capture subjective simplicity or elegance. It is perhaps unsurprising that a scientist’s definition of beauty has much in common with Occam’s Razor…

Links to Schmidhuber’s aesthetics = interesting essays are in John’s post. But this is insufficient to me (and John I think). Let me explain why.

In order to give a general account of interest, we need to not only explain why lay folk think something is interesting, but also why specialists in a field think something is interesting. Is it merely psychological, and if so, in what way? Is there something universal that makes interesting things (I’m going to need a term for this, so I will use the word salient as a noun for items of interest) interesting? Or is it that salients are relative? To what? And so on.

What I am primarily interested in is the cognitive, not the psychological, aspects of salients. That is, for instance, while the dopamine system may be the engine of curiosity and payoff, it is not the driver. Cognition is, and ought always to be, servant to psychology, to misquote Hume, but the explanation of cognition is not, I think, just a psychological matter. I believe Carnap once said the same thing. However, [human?] cognition is always motivated or else it doesn’t happen.

People get interested in topics for various reasons. Sometimes it is what we might call “physiological” – some children are naturally curious about narrowly circumscribed ideas or domains. Sometimes it is based mostly upon external – “environmental” – conventions, rules and influences such as economic opportunities. There will be other factors as well (particularly what psychologists call affordances, or features of the environment in which people are thinking and investigating that have features that make some avenues of approach easier or more productive), but this isn’t where I want to discuss them.

So is there are many kinds of cause, endogenous and exogenous, that make some topic or problem of interest, then being interesting cannot be reduced to a single motivator. There is, though, a common denominator: culture. Salients are salient because of the cultural milieu in which they are embedded. That is to say, something is interesting because it is expected to be interesting in that place, time and culture.

* Griesemer J. The enduring value of Gánti’s chemoton model and life criteria: Heuristic pursuit of exact theoretical biology. J Theor Biol. 2015 Sep 21;381:23-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2015.05.016. Epub 2015 May 19. PMID: 25997793.

† In the Wikipedia article, Professor Brendon Coventry of the University of Adelaide is quoted:

Although the findings presented are interesting, they represent contrived models in immunodeficient mice (without immune systems) and therefore it is far too early to get too excited by such preliminary findings. The findings might be useful, but down the track, especially for breast cancer types where useful therapies do not exist, or have failed, … It is a real conundrum for researchers today, because ‘early publicity’ is needed for funding, capital raising and professional kudos, but not too helpful for the public who then think that an immediate cure might be just around the corner,

This is exactly the point I am discussing below.