A person is more likely to learn about a particular subject if he is curious about it. Now, a new research published in the journal Neuron on Oct. 2 finally reveals what is going on behind the brain when curiosity is piqued that helps facilitate learning and memory power.
Curiosity stimulates the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), which are part of the brain circuit associated with reward. It also triggers increased activity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory formation, suggests Matthias Gruber, from the University of California at Davis, and colleagues.
For their study, the researchers asked a group of volunteers to rate how curious they were to learn the answers to a set of trivia questions. The volunteers were then shown a neutral face for two seconds after each question before they were able to view the answer. Later, the participants took a memory test that evaluated how they remembered the faces and the answers.
Results revealed that the participants tend to remember the answers to the trivia questions they were curious about remembering about 17 percent more of the answers. It also turned out that the participants were 4 percent better at remembering the faces that were shown to them after those questions and were likely to retain the information they have learned.
The researchers also examined the participants' brain activity using fMRI while they learned the answers and observed that the activity of the brain's hippocampus is increased when a person waits for the interesting information. Gruber explained that the participants remembered the images regardless that these were unrelated to the questions and were not interesting because curiosity may have prepared their brain to remember new information.
"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," Gruber said.
The brain scans also revealed heightened activity in NAcc and SN/VTA which are part of the brain circuits associated with reward. The reward circuit relies on dopamine, a chemical that transmits messages between neurons and which plays a role in external motivation such as food, drug addiction and sex.
Gruber and colleagues likewise observed increased communication between the hippocampus and the SN/VTA when the participants anticipate the answer to the questions and this boosts their ability to learn new information.
"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," the researchers wrote.