We’re confronted with an endless supply of information every day, from television ads and news headlines to updated procedures at work and the name of your mum’s new cat. But why does some of this information stick around so easily in our memories, while the rest is forgotten, sometimes as quickly as it was encountered?
New research by a team of US-based psychologists at the University of California, Davis has given us an insight into why curiosity plays such a crucial role in how we learn, and it turns out that our minds actively reward us for seeking out the information we’re most interested in.
For the study, the team gathered 19 volunteers and got them to review 100 typical trivia questions including "What does the term 'dinosaur' mean?" and "What Beatles single lasted longest on the charts, at 19 weeks?” The volunteers were asked to rate each question based on how curious they were about knowing the answer. Next, they were asked to look at the answer of each question while their brain activity was monitored by an MRI machine.
According to Maanvi Singh from NPR, the team watched as the ‘pleasure centres’ of the participants’ brains lit up when they encountered the answers of the questions they were most interested in. "When the participants' curiosity was piqued, the parts of their brains that regulate pleasure and reward lit up,” says Singh. "Curious minds also showed increased activity in the hippocampus, which is involved in the creation of memories.”
"There's this basic circuit in the brain that energises people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding,” one of the team, psychologist Charan Ranganath, told Singh. This means that not only does this part of the brain light up when we're eating chocolate or doing some exercise, it also sparks when we endeavour to satisfy our curiosities. This causes the release of a brain chemical called dopamine, which is responsible for a feeling often described as a 'natural high’.
What dopamine is also responsible for, says Ranganath, is retaining information. "The dopamine also seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning,” he told Singh.
The team tested this theory by quizzing their volunteers on what they’d remembered from the 100 trivia questions and answers. They found that the volunteers who were curious about the most number of questions remembered the most correct answers.
Singh also notes at NPR that the study featured a rather intriguing twist. Throughout the study, the 19 participants were shown pictures of randomly selected faces for just a couple of seconds at a time while they were reviewing the trivia questions, and were not told why. It turned out that those participants whose curiosity was already switched on by the question they were reading were more likely to remember the face they saw at the time.
This means that if something has piqued your curiosity, you’re not only more likely to learn and remember information about that topic, but also about other topics that you encounter at the same time.
Ranganath says it’s like when you’re watching something like the finale of Breaking Bad. It’d almost be an understatement to say that if you were a fan of the show, you would have been curious to find out what happens to its main characters, such as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, at the end. Once you’d seen it, you’ll have very likely remembered what happened in the episode, but there’s a good chance you’ll also remember incidental things that came along with that, like what you were eating at the time, who you were with, and what you did after the credits rolled.
The research has some interesting implications for education. Aspects like exactly what curiosity is, what it does to our brains, and why some people seem to be more naturally curious than others remain little-studied, but it’s likely that the most effective educational practices in the future will be linked very closely to what what we understand curiosity to be doing inside our brains.