Curiosity is a great motivator of learning, a new study suggests, as it actually changes our brains and prepares them for new discoveries, then helps us remember what we've learned.
Curiosity about a subject at hand not only helps us take in new information about it but opens the brain to additional incidental information as well, the researchers say.
Neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, asked study participants to review a long list of questions and rank them in terms of how curious they felt about learning the answer.
Each subject then revisited the questions -- both those they were curious about and those they weren't -- while undergoing MRI brain scans.
As they were scanned, the participants would view a question, wait for some seconds, then view a photograph of a face with no relation to the question, then the answer to the question was provided.
A greater interest in a question was linked to not only better memory for the answer but also for the unrelated face that had preceded it, the researcher found.
Curiosity was somehow preparing the brain for learning and also broadly improving long-term memory, they reported in the journal Neuron.
During the experiment, brain activity was increased in regions creating dopamine, which regulates sensations of reward and pleasure, they said.
This suggests the brain was already engaging its reward system even before the answer to a curiosity-engaging question was revealed, study lead-author Matthias Gruber says.
"This anticipation was really important," he says, noting that the more curious a study participant was, the more he or she engaged this anticipatory network.
The hippocampus, the brain area involved in creating memories, also showed increased activity, the researchers found.
"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," study leader Charan Ranganath says.
Curiosity can be a greater spur to learning than either importance or interest, the researchers suggest.
"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 says. "These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings."
They could also help in understanding learning and memory defects in people suffering from diseases involving low dopamine levels such as Parkinson' disease, the researcher said.