Curiosity Activates Brain To Boost Learning Experience

Miranda Knox

A new study suggests that being curious about a subject can actually make the brain more receptive to remembering what one learns by activating key regions of the brain. The research was led by Matthias Gruber of the University of California at Davis and the paper was published in the journal Neuron. 

During the study, participants undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) were questioned about their level of curiosity in regards to particular trivia questions. Before being shown the answer, the participants were shown a picture of a face that had nothing to do with the question for a total of 14 seconds. Afterwards, the participants were given a pop quiz and asked to recall the faces related to each question. They were not asked about the answers to the questions until 24 hours later. It was not surprising that a higher level of interest correlated with a higher retention of the correct answer. 

"Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation -- curiosity -- affects memory. These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings," Gruber said in a press release

However, those who were curious about a specific question were also more likely to correctly match the faces to the questions. The researchers determined that once curiosity had been piqued, a person was more likely to learn and retain unrelated information, even an entire day later. Even though each participant may not have been interested in the faces, if they were viewed during a time of curiosity, it was more likely to have been remembered.

"Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it," Gruber added.

The fMRI results showed that being in a curious state was connected to the brain's reward center that uses the "happiness" neurotransmitter dopamine. The motivation that participants had to learn a bit of trivia turned into reward upon learning the answer. The hippocampus--the region of the brain responsible for memory--also showed greater levels of activity when a person was curious.

"So curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance," added Charan Ranganath, the project's principal investigator.

There are widespread real-world implications for these results. Those with waning dopamine function, either due to age or certain neurological conditions, could benefit from new techniques that pair the person's curiosity with an unrelated piece of information to help aid with learning and retention. Additionally, educators could help explain difficult or obscure concepts by coupling the topic with unrelated material more likely to incite curiosity and boost overall comprehension.

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