From sailors exploring uncharted waters to the viewing public avoiding spoilers for their favorite TV show, people love the unknown. But why? What is it about not knowing something that makes it interesting, and makes us want to explore or discover?
Why are we fascinated with the unknown?
Related questions: Why is it better to watch a sporting event live rather than recorded? Why is change so unsettling? How important is intuition? How do we know what we don’t know?
4 thoughts on “Why Are We Fascinated With The Unknown?”
First, so much of life is patterned. For the sake of efficiency and needing to reduce the number of decisions we need to make — which could become paralyzing — we find routines to dictate much of our lives.
Surprises and confronting the unknown become the spice of life.
Second, I crave lifelong learning about my hobbies. I want to learn more about heirloom gardening, photography, and what the universe is made of (for a novel I continually hope to write). I can’t get enough new information regarding these topics. Each discovery adds something interesting to my life.
I suspect that there is an evolutionary reason for our interest in what we don’t know.
We developed larger brains, which allowed us to build and use tools, and using those tools caused our brains to develop even more.
The same thing is true of languages. Our highly-developed brains could now handle a greater sophistication in learning vocabulary and grammatical rules. That stimulated greater expansion into abstract thinking.
In order to keep all that brain power engaged and staying active encouraged our need for problems to solve, creations to invent, and the unknown to explore.
At least that’s my theory.
But, I think, there is also a competing evolutionary urge toward maintaining the status quo. We find a stable situation, and we want to maintain it.
That’s why so many people find change — even change for the better — so unnerving. We have an instinctual sense that things could always be worse, no matter how bad they happen to be. (That they might also be better is often ignored or dismissed by all but the most-heavily suffering, which is why change often comes from the margins of society.)
As humans, we are constantly waging an internal battle between exploration of the unknown and our desire for the stable and predictable.
I certainly feel that tug-of-war in my own life. That’s why I could stay in a stable job, one that was not too objectionable, for a long time despite not being truly happy or passionate. But the call of the unknown eventually won out and I went on a cross-country bicycle ride to places I had never seen and where I didn’t know what to expect.
Even for the most conservative people, the ones most heavily leaning on a sense of “normalcy” (whatever *that* means!) can’t help but watch when as a society we break through the most recent boundary of the unknown: walking on the moon or sending a satellite through empty space to far-away Pluto, for example, or our first forays into cyberspace or virtual reality.
What’s next? I can’t wait to find out. I’m fascinated.
I shared this with a group of friends tonight. Our conversation ended with a proposed question.
Are you the type of person who would want to know how and when you die or would you not?
Perhaps part of why we are fascinated with the unknown lies in our dissatisfaction with what is. I have to say that this feeling informed by decision to leave a very unhappy relationship. Is there something out there that is better? Can I find it? Will it make me happier? Disney’s Pocahontas sings about this fascination in “Just around the River Bend.”
“Going where no man has gone before” also peaks our interests and excites our sense of adventure, certainly. Quoting from the little known show “Fluppy Dogs,” “Adventure, Jamie, Adventure!”
I always played it safe in my life and didn’t venture too far to live (only to states that bordered my home state of Illinois). When my daughter left Illinois for graduate school in Boston I began thinking about why I had never done something similar even though I was offered a job in Seattle. And I began to think I could still have my adventure, even if it was a safer one because Bethany was already here in Massachusetts. This adventure, which is nearing its end, has not satiated my taste for adventure and the unknown, I’m happy to say, and I’m looking forward to exploring other parts of the country that I have only read about.