Sunday, October 05, 2014

New Study Provides Insight into How Piquing Curiosity Changes Our Brains

This is a cool study, and it helps me understand why it's often very easy for me to learn new things. I am curious about so many things.

First up a summary of the research from, then the abstract for the original article from Neuron (the full article is paywalled).

New Study Provides Insight into How Piquing Curiosity Changes Our Brains

Oct 3, 2014 by

The more curious we are about a topic, the easier it is to learn information about that topic. A new study carried out by California University scientists provides insights into what happens in our brains when curiosity is piqued.

Curiosity helps learning and memory, scientists say. Anonymous painter, 15th century – Cahiers de Science et Vie no. 114.

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.

The participants 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, they performed a surprise recognition memory test for the presented faces, followed by a memory test for the answers to the trivia questions.

As expected, when people were highly curious to find out the answer to a question, they were better at learning that information.

More surprising, however, was that once their curiosity was aroused, they showed better learning of entirely unrelated information that they encountered but were not necessarily curious about.

The participants were also better able to retain the information learned during a curious state across a 24-hour delay.

“Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation – curiosity – affects memory,” said Dr Matthias Gruber, who is the first author of the paper published in the journal Neuron.

“These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings.”

He added: “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.”

The scientists also discovered 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. This reward circuit relies on dopamine, a chemical that relays messages between neurons.”

In addition, they found 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.

Prof Charan Ranganath, who is the senior author on the study, explained: “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.”


Matthias J. Gruber et al. (2014, Oct 2). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron; doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.08.060
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States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit

Matthias J. Gruber, Bernard D. Gelman, Charan Ranganath

  • People are better at learning information that they are curious about
  • Memory for incidental material presented during curious states was also enhanced
  • Curiosity associated with anticipatory activity in nucleus accumbens and midbrain
  • Memory benefits for incidental material depend on midbrain-hippocampus involvement

People find it easier to learn about topics that interest them, but little is known about the mechanisms by which intrinsic motivational states affect learning. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how curiosity (intrinsic motivation to learn) influences memory. In both immediate and one-day-delayed memory tests, participants showed improved memory for information that they were curious about and for incidental material learned during states of high curiosity. Functional magnetic resonance imaging results revealed that activity in the midbrain and the nucleus accumbens was enhanced during states of high curiosity. Importantly, individual variability in curiosity-driven memory benefits for incidental material was supported by anticipatory activity in the midbrain and hippocampus and by functional connectivity between these regions. These findings suggest a link between the mechanisms supporting extrinsic reward motivation and intrinsic curiosity and highlight the importance of stimulating curiosity to create more effective learning experiences.

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