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The need to explore

What is exploration?

At BUNKA, we are convinced that people’s motivation to explore should be taken seriously. Exploring is a ubiquitous requirement of life. Animals as well as humans explore to find mates and habitats, avoid predators, and learn new action–outcome associations. Scientists have long studied exploration in many different species, from bacteria to wolves to humans. They have demonstrated that similar cognitive and neural processes, and in particular the dopaminergic system, are present across species. All species indeed face the same challenges. Hills et al. (2018) sum up these challenges well: “Individual organisms must strike the proper balance between global exploration and local exploitation to survive – exploring sufficiently to find resources and exploiting sufficiently to harvest them.”     

Scientists have also demonstrated that many kinds of exploration - animal foraging, visual search, information search, search within one's own memory, search in problem solving - present similar challenges and recruit the same neural processes. These neural processes originally evolved to explore physical landscapes and discover new sources of food and energy, but were progressively recycled to control cognitive exploration, that is the exploration of ideas, strategies and knowledge.                           


Humans exploring information on the web is thus one kind of exploration. It obeys the same logic and recruits the same cognitive mechanisms. For instance, people switch adaptively between local and global search: people leave a local patch of web pages when they perceive that its value has fallen below what can be found globally elsewhere. 

Exploring is thus not like searching. When searching, you are exploiting: you are looking for something you already know exists and you want to know where it is located. Exploring is different: you do not know whether what you are looking for exists. In fact, you may not even know what you are looking for. 

And because exploration is key in surviving, animals and humans alike have a strong drive for exploration. Experiments have long demonstrated that animals, from rats to macaques to dolphins, explore spaces and information even in the absence of any reward. They just like exploring, for the sake of it. And this is all the more true for humans. The human species has long been a generalist species, constantly exploring new environments, new ways of life and new habitat. Exploration is a defining feature of humans.

Figure from Roberts & Stewart (2018).

At BUNKA, we think that the need for exploration is a key aspect of human behavior, and that this need is not fully fulfilled by current search engines. People would like to search less, and to explore more, but they can’t. This is all the more true that the need to explore, and the pleasure to explore, tend to increase when people have more resources and more time. Studies with rats, but also parrots, vampire bats, wild-spotted hyenas and orang-utangs, show that individuals explore more when they are safe and satiated. 













This is also true in humans. As we have demonstrated in our team, individuals with high and steady levels of resources are more ready to explore novel information and new rewards, and levels of artistic and technological innovation are higher in more affluent and safer societies. In line with this idea, large-scale surveys and psychological questionnaires demonstrate that, as economic development increases, the younger generations are becoming less and less conformists, more and more open to novelty, and more and more interested in exploring rather than exploiting. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in pop culture. Fictions with imaginary worlds, where people can explore and discover new things draw acclaim from the public, the critics, and the industry, making them both best-selling and most-appreciated fictions, from novels (e.g., Lord of The Ring and Harry Potter) to films (e.g., Star Wars and Avatar), video games (e.g., The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy), graphic novels (e.g., One Piece and Naruto), and TV series (e.g., Star Trek and Game of Thrones).

Exploration is an important drive of human nature, and increasingly so in the younger generations. Exploration engines are needed.   

Baumard, N. (2019). Psychological origins of the industrial revolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 42


Dubourg, E., & Baumard, N. (2021). Why Imaginary Worlds?: The psychological foundations and cultural evolution of fictions with imaginary worlds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-52..


Hills, T. T., Todd, P. M., Lazer, D., Redish, A. D., Couzin, I. D., & Cognitive Search Research Group. (2015). Exploration versus exploitation in space, mind, and society. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(1), 46-54.


Roberts, P., & Stewart, B. A. (2018). Defining the ‘generalist specialist’niche for Pleistocene Homo sapiens. Nature Human Behaviour, 2(8), 542-550.

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