We all know the expression “Curiosity killed the cat.” But a new study suggests that when it comes to acquiring and retaining information, it may provide a mother lode of inspiration.
Turns out, people who are more curious about a topic remember more of what they read and learn about it — including ancillary information that may be passed on along the way.
The study, “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit,” just published in the journal Neuron, offers insight into what occurs in the brain when curiosity is piqued.
The study was quite revealing. Participants were first queried on how curious they were to know an answer to a specific question — for instance, the etymology of the term “dinosaur.”
Curious participants, placed in an MRI machine to measure brain activity, were shown an image of a person’s face, then shown the correct answer to the trivia question — in the dinosaur example: “terrible lizard.”
Following the MRI, study subjects completed a “pop quiz” on the answers to trivia questions as well as their ability to recognize the visages shown during the experiment.
This research led to some interesting findings.
The study validated the hypothesis that when people are curious to learn an answer to a question they are better at learning that information. The effects are both short- and long-term. More revealing still was that participants had greater recall of any miscellaneous information (the random face shown during the dinosaur trivia episode) which was seen at the same time.
“This shows that when the brain is engaged more, by making a task relevant and interesting, people learn more,” said Amy Reichelt, psychology research fellow at University of New South Wales.
It also appears that — when curiosity is stimulated — there is increased activity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory, as well as notable activity in the regions of the brain commonly associated with reward.
Jee Hyun Kim, a behavioral neuroscientist and head of the Developmental Psychobiology Lab at Melbourne’s Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, thinks additional research could reveal whether varying levels of curiosity impact memory and learning.
“It would be more informative to see if individuals with low curiosity respond better to extrinsic motivation (reward value, reduced cost), whereas individuals with high [intrinsic] motivation (self-motivation or curiosity) are better left to their own devices,” Kim suggests. “Finding such relationship, and how such intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations may change due to neurological disorders, will have more important practical implications.”
The upshot appears to be that for curious types, no external reward is necessary. In fact, external rewards may make no appreciable difference at all. But for people with a lower curiosity quotient, external rewards might spur learning and retention of information.
Applications of the research are potentially very wide. Reichelt said the implications of this new research lie in both medicine and education.
“Stimulating curiosity is really important across all ages, from schools, to the workplace and to elderly care,“ Reichelt said. “In patients with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, carrying out engaging tasks can help people remember things that are important, and also encourage new learning.”
And — wonder of wonders — the study may offer a glimpse into why that canister of fruit chews on the teacher’s desk often spurs the less curious to higher levels of achievement.