Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a new study shows that curiosity is key for boosting memory. When we're intrigued by something, it makes us more receptive to information, and in turn, more likely to remember it. This state of curiosity even helps us remember information about things unrelated to the topic.
A new study about the effect of curiosity on memory was published in the October 2 issue of the journal Neuron. Researchers at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, led by Dr. Matthias Gruber, asked 19 people to answer more than a hundred questions, and rate how interested in each of them they were. The researchers later put the participants into an MRI machine, where they repeated 112 of the questions, using half that the participants found interesting, and half that they didn't find interesting. The participants were shown an unrelated photograph after every question, before the answer popped up 14 seconds later. The researchers found that when the participants' curiosity was piqued, when they were interested in the subject of the question, they paid more attention to the unrelated photograph, and were better able to learn the faces. That means that being curious about one subject can make you better at learning even unrelated 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," said Dr. Gruber, the lead author of the study.
The team also found increased activity in the hippocampus region of the brain when new information was learned while curiosity was piqued. The hippocampus is strongly linked to the reward section of the brain, meaning that when people are curious, it motivates them to learn more by rewarding them with a release of dopamine, a chemical that causes a feeling of happiness.
"Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation-curiosity-affects memory. These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings," said Dr. Gruber.
This study could give researchers something to look for in ways to improve the memory of people with declined dopamine production, like older people and people with neurologic dysfunction. Teachers should also take note: they may want to try a tactic like interspersing less interesting information with facts to pique the curiosity of students.