Have you ever wondered what happens when we get curious about something? Well, we obviously try to learn things concerning the thing that interests us, and we search for information. But have you noticed that when you find that information, absorbing and retaining it actually becomes easier than normal? One might say that it is to be expected that learning about something interesting to us would be more enjoyable. However, it is not merely psychological, and curiosity does not play the part of mere motive. Now there is strong scientific evidence that when we learn things about something that piques our curiosity, our brain process actually becomes more effective, as a result of dopamine, the chemical that helps relay messages between neurons.
To be more specific, a recent study that was published online October 2 in the Cell Press journal Neuron reveals findings that illustrate the internal brain process of learning when someone is curious. The conclusion was that curiosity affects absorption and retention of information, in regards to new information, but also unrelated information that happened to be absorbed along with the subject of interest.
For the study, participants rated their curiosity 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. Afterwards, participants performed a surprise recognition memory test for the faces that were presented, followed by a memory test for the answers to the trivia questions. During certain parts of the study, participants had their brains scanned via functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The results led to three conclusions: Firstly, as lead author Dr. Matthias Gruber, of University of California at Davis says, “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“. This means that once the brain is stimulated via curiosity, it is much more effective at learning and memory functions.
Secondly, “We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation,” says Dr. Gruber, which means that curiosity and the mental process of rewarding are related (another effect of dopamine).
Last but not least, the research team noted increased activity in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for creating new memories, and that this activity was closely tied with the rewarding process. As Dr. Charan Ranganath, also of UC Davis, explains, “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“.
What does this all mean? There might not be a concrete answer to that yet, but it is certain that the findings can contribute to the fields of education and medicine. In a classroom environment, for example, teachers would find it useful to know how to exploit the relationship between curiosity and motivation. Likewise, in the field of medicine, especially in cases were memory and learning abilities are challenged, either by an affliction or naturally (old age), new methods could be developed to help lessen the deterioration of memory.