Science/Tech

How Curiosity Enhances The Brain And Stimulates The Reward System To Improve Learning And Memory

curiosity
Curiosity stimulates the brain to produce more dopamine, thus making the process of learning more pleasant and improving an individual's memory. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but new research shows that inquisitiveness can actually improve learning by stimulating the brain’s reward system. In other words, curiosity serves as a form of internal motivation that can help us learn more quickly.

The study, published in the journal Neuron, found that people who were curious about a subject learned more and remembered more information than others. So instead of being a punishable and risky quality, 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,” Dr. Matthias Gruber of the University of California at Davis said in the press release.

The researchers had participants read a series of trivia questions, then allowed them to rate their own curiosity or desire to find out the answers. Afterward, they were given a trivia question, then shown a picture of a face. The participants were asked to remember the faces, and given a memory test for the trivia questions; the ones who were curious about learning the answer to the question learned the information better than the others. These curious knowledge-seekers were also better in remembering unrelated information, like the faces presented — things they weren’t necessarily curious about. They were also quicker at retaining the information they learned that day.

Perhaps most significantly, when curiosity is stimulated, the researchers found that there was a higher activity in the brain area that has to do with reward; this was also connected to dopamine activity. “We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation,” Gruber said. Curiosity was also linked to increased activity in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that makes new memories.

“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,” Dr. Charan Ranganath, another author of the study and lead investigator, said in the press release. In an interview with The Guardian, Ranganath said that “once you light that fire of curiosity, you put the brain in a state that’s more conducive to learning. Once you get this ramp-up of dopamine, the brain becomes more like a sponge that’s ready to soak up whatever is happening.”

So perhaps next time you’re struggling to focus on your studies or work, try a new approach to sharpening your concentration and motivation. Read something interesting first, and get excited about learning.

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

Source: Gruber M, Gelman B, Ranganath C. “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit.” Neuron. 2014.

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