This morning, I'm reading some actual psychological research on this whole issue. This literature review is called "Interest -- the Curious Emotion," , and it's by Paul J. Silvia. Here are some highlights, lightly edited for blogability:
"In my research, I have suggested that interest comes from two appraisals. The ﬁrst appraisal is an evaluation of an event’s novelty–complexity, which refers to evaluating an event as new, unexpected, complex, hard to process, surprising, mysterious, or obscure...The second, less obvious appraisal is an evaluation of an event’s comprehensibility."In other words, whether we find something interesting is jointly determined by its newness and its comprehensibility. What's "comprehensibility"? It's a sense of whether a person has the "skills, knowledge, and resources to deal with an event."
Here's how he thinks his theory plays out in an art museum:
"Consider, for example, a group of college students meandering through the campus art museum. Some of the students find the modern-art gallery interesting: The works strike them as new, different, and unusual, and—thanks to a few classes in art history—they feel able to get what the artists are trying to express. But most of the students, such as the students forced to attend as part of a class assignment, do not find the modern-art gallery interesting. The works strike them as unusual but also meaningless and incomprehensible: They do not know enough about this art to find it interesting."Silvia's "comprehensibility" is a lot like what I meant by "ease." If you push me, I would have to admit that the questions that I asked myself weren't all easy, but I had high confidence that I would be able to answer them. I'm happy to drop my "ease" for Silvia's "comprehensibility."
Has he done research in math? Yes he has:
"[Subjects] spent more time viewing complex polygons than they did viewing simple polygons."Anyway, the paper's really worth checking out, and it's chock-full of citations to a really cool body of research. Here's one line worth remembering:
"New and comprehensible works are interesting; new and incomprehensible things are confusing."