October 6, 2014

The Power of Curiosity

Curiosity literally makes the brain more open to learning. Can we use this information in schools?

We’ve all experienced how easy it is to learn about something that fascinates us — and how hard it is to learn when the subject is a bore. Researchers are starting to understand why the brain is so much more open to learning about certain subjects over others. And it all seems to come down to how curiosity primes the brain to be in a more receptive state.

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

To see how people learned information ranging from dull to interesting, the team had participants do a little trivia. They asked participants various questions, but before the answer was revealed they showed them a random face.

Curiosity creates new connections between reward and memory in the brain.

Later they tested how well the participants had learned the information and whether they recognized the faces. Their brains were scanned with MRI to see what areas of the brain were active in these tasks.

The more curious a participant was about a particular question, the better he or she learned it and recalled it. Participants also remembered the faces better — a completely unrelated task — when they were curious about vs. bored with the trivia questions. These effects lasted at least 24 hours after the initial learning occurred.

“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 Gruber.

Certain areas of the brain were more active when participants were curious about a topic, the brain scans showed, particularly the hippocampus, the brain region that is active during learning and memory. The reward system of the brain, which uses dopamine as its chemical messenger, was also activated, which suggests that curiosity creates new connections between reward and memory in the brain.

“So curiosity recruits the reward system,” said Gruber, “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.”

The findings may have implications for an aging population, since people naturally lose function in their dopamine systems with age. It may also teach researchers more about how memory loss occurs over time, and why people may lose interest in certain activities as they age.

And, of course, the results may one day be important for teachers hoping to help kids learn. Harnessing the power of curiosity in new and innovative ways — for adults and kids alike — may be the trick to putting the brain in a more receptive state.

The research was carried out at the University of California at Davis and published in the journal Neuron.

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