The more our curiosity is piqued, the easier all learning becomes within a certain period of time, according to new research published in the journal Neuron.
The findings could highlight ways to enhance overall learning and memory in both healthy individuals and in those with neurological disorders.
“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,” said lead author Matthias Gruber, Ph.D., of the University of California at Davis (UC Davis).
“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,” said Gruber.
For the study, participants rated how curious they were to learn the answers to a series of trivia questions. When they were later presented with a selected trivia question, there was a 14-second delay before the answer was provided, during which time the participants were shown a picture of a neutral, unrelated face.
Later, participants were given a surprise memory test for the faces that were shown, followed by another memory test for the answers to the trivia questions. During certain parts of the study, participants had their brains scanned through functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The study revealed three major findings. First, as expected, when participants were highly curious to find out the answer to a question, they were better at learning the answer.
Interestingly, however, once their curiosity was piqued, they showed better learning of entirely unrelated information (face recognition) — something they were not necessarily curious about. In fact, participants were better able to retain the information learned during a curious state across a 24-hour delay.
Second, when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward. “We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation,” said Gruber. This reward circuit relies on the chemical messenger dopamine.
Finally, the researchers found that when curiosity was piqued, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for forming new memories, as well as increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit.
“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,” said principal investigator Charan Ranganath, Ph.D., also of UC Davis.
The findings could have wide-reaching implications.
For example, the brain circuits that rely on dopamine tend to decline in function as people get older, or sooner in people with neurological problems. Understanding the relationship between motivation and memory could lead to new efforts to improve memory in the elderly and to develop new treatments for patients with memory-related disorders.
In the classroom or workplace, learning “boring” material could be enhanced if teachers or managers are able to harness the power of students’ and workers’ curiosity about something they are naturally curious to learn.