Curiosity helps us learn about a topic, and being in a curious state also helps the brain memorize unrelated information, according to researchers at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience. Work published Oct. 2 in the journal Neuron provides insight into how piquing our curiosity changes our brains, and could help scientists find ways to enhance overall learning and memory in both healthy individuals and those with neurological conditions.
“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,” says first author Matthias Gruber, a postdoctoral researcher at the center.
Participants in the study first rated their curiosity about the answers to a series of trivia questions. Later, they had their brains scanned via functional magnetic resonance imaging while they learned the answers to these questions. First, they were presented with a selected trivia question and while they waited for the answer to pop up on the screen, they were shown a picture of a neutral, unrelated face.
Afterwards, participants performed a surprise recognition memory test for the presented faces, followed by a memory test for the answers to the trivia questions.
As might be expected, people were better at learning the trivia information when they were highly curious about it. More surprisingly, they also showed better learning of the unrelated faces that were shown while their curiosity was aroused. Information learned during a curious state was better retained over a 24-hour delay.
“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 said.
Secondly, the investigators found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward.
“We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits some of the same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation,” Gruber said. This reward circuit relies on dopamine, a chemical that relays messages between neurons.
The team also discovered that when learning was motivated by curiosity, 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 dopamine 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 Charan Ranganath, senior author, and Professor at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology.
Brain circuits that rely on dopamine tend to decline in function with aging, or sooner in people with neurological or psychiatric disorders. Understanding the relationship between motivation and memory could stimulate new efforts to improve memory in the healthy elderly and new approaches for treating patients with memory disorders. And in the classroom or workplace, learning could be enhanced if teachers or managers can engage students’ and workers’ curiosity about something they are naturally motivated to learn.
Coauthors on the study were Gruber, Ranganath and research scientist Bernard Gelman. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Simon J. Guggenheim Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust.