Exploration is the process of exploring, an activity which has some expectation of discovery. Organised exploration is largely a human activity, but exploratory activity is common to most organisms capable of directed locomotion and the ability to learn, and has been described in, amongst others, social insects foraging behaviour, where feedback from returning individuals affects the activity of other members of the group.[1]

Exploration has been defined as:

  • To travel somewhere in search of discovery.[2]
  • To examine or investigate something systematically.[2]
  • To examine diagnostically.[2]
  • To (seek) experience first hand.[2]
  • To wander without any particular aim or purpose.[2]

In all these definitions there is an implication of novelty, or unfamiliarity or the expectation of discovery in the exploration, whereas a survey implies directed examination, but not necessarily discovery of any previously unknown or unexpected information. The activities are not mutually exclusive, and often occur simultaneously to a variable extent. The same field of investigation or region may be explored at different times by different explorers with different motivations, who may make similar or different discoveries.

Intrinsic exploration involves activity that is not directed towards a specific goal other than the activity itself.[3]

Extrinsic exploration has the same meaning as appetitive behavior.[4] It is directed towards a specific goal.


Curiosity is a quality related to inquisitive thinking and activities such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in humans and other animals.[5][6] Exploratory behavior is the movements of people and other animals while becoming familiar with to new environments, even when there is no obvious biological advantage to it. A lack of exploratory behaviour may be considered an indication of fearfulness or emotionality.[7]

  • Inspective exploration or specific exploration is directed towards reducing uncertainty, reducing anxiety, or fear, associated with novel stimuli, and thus decreasing arousal.[8]
  • Diversive exploration is exploratory behavior seeking seeking novel or otherwise activating stimuli and thus increasing arousal.[9]
  • Affective exploration is behaviour directed towards maintaining a desired hedonic level of stimulation.[10]


Travelling in search of discovery

Ortelius's 1570 world map, the world's first modern atlas.

Geographical exploration, sometimes considered the default meaning for the more general term exploration, is the practice of discovering remote lands and regions of the planet Earth.[11] It has included combinations of diversive and inspective exploration. The surface of the Earth has been relatively comprehensively explored, as access is generally relatively straightforward, but underwater and subterranean areas are far less known, and even at the surface, much is still to be discovered in detail in the more remote and inaccessible wilderness areas.

Two major eras of geographical exploration occurred in human history: The first, covering most of Human history, saw people moving out of Africa, settling in new lands, and developing distinct cultures in relative isolation.[12] Early explorers settled in Europe and Asia; 14,000 years ago, some crossed the Ice Age land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, and moved southwards to settle in the Americas.[11] For the most part, these cultures were ignorant of each other's existence.[12] The second period of exploration, occurring over the last 10,000 years, saw increased cross-cultural exchange through trade and exploration, and marked a new era of cultural intermingling, and more recently, convergence.[12]

Early writings about exploration date back to the 4th millennium B.C. in ancient Egypt. One of the earliest and most impactful thinkers on exploration was Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. Between the 5th century and 15th century AD, most exploration was done by Chinese and Arab explorers. This was followed by the Age of Discovery after European scholars rediscovered the works of early Latin and Greek geographers. While the Age of Discovery was partly driven by land routes outside of Europe becoming unsafe,[13] and a desire for conquest, the 17th century also saw exploration driven by nobler motives, including scientific discovery and the expansion of knowledge about the world.[11] This broader knowledge of the world's geography meant that people were able to make world maps, depicting all land known. The first modern atlas was the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, published by Abraham Ortelius, which included a world map that depicted all of Earth's continents.[14]:32

DSV Alvin, a crewed submersible, much used for underwater exploration.

Underwater exploration is the exploration of any underwater environment, either by direct observation by the explorer, or by remote observation and measurement under the direction of the investigators. Systematic, targeted exploration, with simultaneous survey, and recording of data, followed by data processing, interpretation and publication, is the most effective method to increase understanding of the ocean and other underwater regions, so they can be effectively managed, conserved, regulated, and their resources discovered, accessed, and used. Less than 10% of the ocean has been mapped in any detail, less has bee visually observed, and the total diversity of life and distribution of populations is similarly incompletely known.[15]

Systematic examination or investigation

Systematic investigation is done in an orderly and organised manner, generally following a plan, though it should be a flexible plan, which is amenable to rational adaptation to suit circumstances, as the concept of exploration accepts the possibility of the unexpected being encountered, and the plan must survive such encounters to remain useful.

Prospecting for minerals is an example of systematic investigation and of inspective exploration. Traditionally prospecting relied on direct observation of mineralisation in rock outcrops or in sediments, but more recently also includes the use of geologic, geophysical, and geochemical tools to search for anomalies which can narrow the search area. The area to be prospected should be covered sufficiently to minimise the risk of missing something important, but can take into account previous experience that certain geological evidence correlates witha very low probability of finding the desired minerals, and other evidence indicates a high probability, making it efficient to concentrate on the areas of high probability when they are found, and to skip areas of very low probability. Once an anomaly has been identified and interpreted to be a prospect, more detailed exploration of the potential reserve can be done by soil sampling, drilling, seismic surveys, and similar methods to assess the most appropriate method and type of mining and the economic potential.[16]

Diagnostical examination

Diagnosis is the identification of the nature and cause of a given phenomenon. Diagnosis is used in many different disciplines, such as medicine, forensic science and engineering failure analysis, with variations in the use of logic, analytics, and experience, to determine causality.[17] A diagnostic examination explores the available evidence to try to identify likely causes for observed effects, and may also investigate further with the intention to discover additional relevant evidence. This is an instance of inspective and extrinsic exploration.

To seek experience first hand

Exploration as the pursuit of first hand experience and knowledge is often an example of diversive and intrinsic exploration when done for personal satisfaction and entertainment, though it may also be for purposes of learning or verifying the information provided by others, which is an extrinsic motivation, and which is likely to be characterised by a relatively systematic approach. As the personal aspect of the experience is central to this type of exploration, the same region or range of experiences may be explored repeatedly by different people, for each can have a reasonable expectation of personal discovery.

Wandering without any particular aim or purpose

Wandering about in the hope or expectation of serendipitous discovery may also be considered a form of diversive exploration.

Other animals

Exploratory behavior has been defined as behavior directed toward getting information about the environment,[18] or to locate things such as food or individuals. Exploration usually follows a sequence, in which four stages can be identified.[19] The first phase is search, in which the subject moves around to contact relevant stimuli, to which the subject pays attention, and may approach and investigate. The sequence may be interrupted by flight if danger is recognised, or a return to search if the stimulus is not interesting or useful.[20][21][22][23]

A tendency to explore a new environment has been recognised in a wide range of free-moving animals from invertebrates to primates. Various forms of exploratory behaviour in animas have bee analysed and categorised since 1960.[3]

See also

  • Exploration geophysics  Applied branch of geophysics and economic geology
  • Exploration problem  Use of a robot to maximize the knowledge over a particular area
  • Intrinsic motivation (artificial intelligence)  Mechanism for enabling artificial agents to exhibit curiosity
  • Motivation  Psychological feature that arouses an organism to action toward a desired goal
  • Simultaneous localization and mapping  Computational navigational technique used by robots and autonomous vehicles
  • United States Exploring Expedition  An American exploring and surveying expedition, 1838 to 1842
  • List of explorers
  • List of maritime explorers


  1. Biesmeijer, J.; de Vries, H. (2001). "Exploration and exploitation of food sources by social insect colonies: a revision of the scout-recruit concept". Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 49: 89–99. doi:10.1007/s002650000289.
  2. Wiktionary contributors (30 November 2022). "explore". Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  3. Hughes, Robert N (December 1997). "Intrinsic exploration in animals: motives and measurement". Behavioural Processes. 41 (3): 213–226. doi:10.1016/S0376-6357(97)00055-7.
  4. Wood-Gush, D.G.M.; Vestergaard, K. (1989). "Exploratory behavior and the welfare of intensively kept animals". Journal of Agricultural Ethics. 2: 161–169. doi:10.1007/BF01826929.
  5. Berlyne DE. (1954). "A theory of human curiosity". Br J Psychol. 45 (3): 180–91. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1954.tb01243.x. PMID 13190171.
  6. Berlyne DE. (1955). "The arousal and satiation of perceptual curiosity in the rat". J. Comp. Physiol. Psychol. 48 (4): 238–246. doi:10.1037/h0042968. PMID 13252149.
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  8. "inspective exploration". APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved 25 January 2023. defined by Daniel E. Berlyne
  9. "diversive exploration". APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved 25 January 2023. defined by Daniel E. Berlyne
  10. Piccone, Jason (Spring 1999). "Curiosity and Exploration". www.csun.edu. California State University, Northridge. Retrieved 26 January 2023. Wohlwill (1981)
  11. Royal Geographical Society (2008). Atlas of Exploration. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-534318-2. Archived from the original on October 16, 2022. Retrieved October 6, 2022 via Google Books.
  12. Fernández-Armesto, Felipe (October 17, 2007). Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-24247-8. Archived from the original on October 16, 2022. Retrieved October 6, 2022 via Google Books.
  13. "European exploration - The Age of Discovery | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2022-10-06.
  14. "Chapter 2 - Brief History of Land Use—" (PDF). Global Land Outlook (Report). United Nations Convention on Desertification. 2017. ISBN 978-92-95110-48-9. Retrieved November 3, 2022.
  15. "How much of the ocean have we explored?". oceanservice.noaa.gov. Retrieved 6 January 2023.
  16. "Mining - Prospecting and exploration". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 29 February 2020.
  17. "A Guide to Fault Detection and Diagnosis". gregstanleyandassociates.com.
  18. Meyer, Jerrold S. (1998). "22 - Behavioral Assessment in Developmental Neurotoxicology: Approaches Involving Unconditioned Behaviors Pharmacologic Challenges in Rodents". Handbook of Developmental Neurotoxicology. pp. 403–426. doi:10.1016/B978-012648860-9.50029-7.
  19. "Exploration". mousebehavior.org. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  20. "Search". mousebehavior.org. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  21. "Investigate". mousebehavior.org. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  22. "Attend". mousebehavior.org. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  23. "Approach". mousebehavior.org. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
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