How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning

October 2, 2014, Cell Press
Credit: Rice University

The more curious we are about a topic, the easier it is to learn information about that topic. New research publishing online October 2 in the Cell Press journal Neuron provides insights into what happens in our brains when curiosity is piqued. The findings could help scientists find ways to enhance overall learning and memory in both healthy individuals and those with neurological conditions.

"Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation——affects memory. These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings," says lead author Dr. Matthias Gruber, of University of California at Davis.

For the study, participants rated their curiosity to learn the answers to a series of trivia questions. When they were later presented with a selected trivia question, there was a 14 second delay before the answer was provided, during which time the participants were shown a picture of a neutral, unrelated face. Afterwards, participants performed a surprise recognition memory test for the faces that were presented, followed by a for the answers to the trivia questions. During certain parts of the study, participants had their brains scanned via functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The study revealed three major findings. First, 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 (face recognition) that they encountered but were not necessarily curious about. People were also better able to retain the information learned during a curious state across a 24-hour delay. "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," explains Dr. Gruber.

Second, the investigators found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward. "We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation," says Dr. Gruber. This reward circuit relies on dopamine, a chemical messenger that relays messages between neurons.

Third, the team discovered that when curiosity motivated learning, 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 reward circuit. "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," explains principal investigator Dr. Charan Ranganath, also of UC Davis.

The findings could have implications for medicine and beyond. For example, the brain circuits that rely on dopamine tend to decline in function as people get older, or sooner in people with . Understanding the relationship between motivation and memory could therefore stimulate new efforts to improve memory in the healthy elderly and to develop new approaches for treating patients with disorders that affect memory. And in the classroom or workplace, learning what might be considered boring material could be enhanced if teachers or managers are able to harness the power of students' and workers' curiosity about something they are naturally motivated to learn.

Explore further: What happened when? How the brain stores memories by time

More information: Neuron, Gruber et al.: "States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit."

Related Stories

What happened when? How the brain stores memories by time

March 12, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Before I left the house this morning, I let the cat out and started the dishwasher. Or was that yesterday? Very often, our memories must distinguish not just what happened and where, but when an event occurred—and ...

New study sheds light on how children's brains memorize facts

August 17, 2014
As children learn basic arithmetic, they gradually switch from solving problems by counting on their fingers to pulling facts from memory. The shift comes more easily for some kids than for others, but no one knows why.

Specific gene linked to adult growth of brain cells, learning and memory

June 9, 2014
Learning and memory are regulated by a region of the brain known as the hippocampus. New research from City of Hope has found that stimulating a specific gene could prompt growth – in adults – of new neurons in this critical ...

Brain inflammation dramatically disrupts memory retrieval networks, study finds

September 12, 2014
Brain inflammation can rapidly disrupt our ability to retrieve complex memories of similar but distinct experiences, according to UC Irvine neuroscientists Jennifer Czerniawski and John Guzowski.

Brain imaging study reveals our brains 'divide and conquer'

July 18, 2013
University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have found human brains 'divide and conquer' when people learn to navigate around new environments.

Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages during adolescence impairs memory

July 30, 2014
Research to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), the foremost society for research into all aspects of eating and drinking behavior, finds that daily consumption of ...

Recommended for you

New research into letter-spacing could help improve children's reading

March 19, 2018
Increased letter spacing helps individuals read faster, but not due to visual processing, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Kids with severe brain injuries may develop ADHD: study

March 19, 2018
(HealthDay)—Young children who sustain a severe head injury may struggle with attention problems as they grow older, researchers say.

Paraplegic rats walk again after therapy, now we know why

March 19, 2018
With the help of robot-assisted rehabilitation and electrochemical spinal cord stimulation, rats with clinically relevant spinal cord injuries regained control of their otherwise paralyzed limbs. But how do brain commands ...

Scientists locate nerve cells that enable fruit flies to escape danger

March 19, 2018
Columbia University researchers have identified the nerve cells that initiate a fly's escape response: that complex series of movements in which an animal senses, and quickly maneuvers away from, something harmful such as ...

Decision-making is shaped by individual differences in the functional brain connectome

March 19, 2018
Each day brings with it a host of decisions to be made, and each person approaches those decisions differently. A new study by University of Illinois researchers found that these individual differences are associated with ...

Decoding the chemistry of fear

March 19, 2018
Ask a dozen people about their greatest fears, and you'll likely get a dozen different responses. That, along with the complexity of the human brain, makes fear—and its close cousin, anxiety—difficult to study. For this ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Oct 02, 2014
I've always believed in "you are what you do"; another variant being, "you are what you eat."

This is why religion which doesn't require you to question it and everything else is bad for society. I suppose I don't have to post a link to my gospel of truth. See my Gospel of Truth from my Jacob Bronowski "Scientific Humanism" blog.

not rated yet Oct 02, 2014
My bio teacher has wanted the class to make a paper on some contemporary biologic issue. I've decided to write up about this article. I can't help but post it here!

"MedicalExpress website, through Physorg article argues that curiosity helps learning and memory. Key word here is memory. Certainly, if you're going to learn something, you need to remember it; but, just remembering something is not learning. Jacob Bronowski liked to quote Popper about how scientific ideas don't come by means of a photographic plate. An example that comes to my mind is the moon. For generations, mankind looked at it; but, that's not the same thing as understanding it as a rocky world, as going around the Earth. The Moon shows it's face to us all the time. Mankind never thought to wonder why until astrophysics advanced far enough to see the Moon as one of many planets going around the Sun. Getting back to what the article explained of their findings.

They first did a group study. The experimenter
not rated yet Oct 02, 2014
They first did a group study. The experimenters made the participants take a survey. The participants rated things that interested them. They later did some magnetic resonance imaging.

What the researchers found was that once curiosity is aroused, people are better able to learn about other things they generally are not. This arousal period lasts for twenty four hours. I find this kind of an amazing stat. My initial thought is people are not interested in say physics or mathematics. I suppose this is a different point. Still, if you're not interested, then you don't get this curiosity arousal.

The article further points out that older peoples memories could be improved by this understanding. What it doesn't state is that perhaps these older people with poor memories get that way because of poor curiosity. As I've always liked to believe even when comparably young, "You are what you do." Or, "you are what you eat." If you're attitude is "I don't want to learn", then yo
not rated yet Oct 02, 2014
The article further points out that older peoples memories could be improved by this understanding. What it doesn't state is that perhaps these older people with poor memories get that way because of poor curiosity. As I've always liked to believe even when comparably young, "You are what you do." Or, "you are what you eat." If you're attitude is "I don't want to learn", then you won't. The social issues go deeper here though. I could go there; but, I'm tired of trying to explain these things to people.

I'll finish this up with some changes in study habits. Often people try to only learn one thing. I've tried to; but, I recall reading some other stuff of interest early on in this class; then, I put it down. I think I'll go back to reading and studying what I want to, and then try to find time to read and get through this class. I'll give an example. One morning, I had Hermann Weyl's "The Classical Groups - their invariants and representations." I'm not technically ready to d
not rated yet Oct 02, 2014
I'm not technically ready to do any of it, but I have some conceptual understanding of the significance of the book. In the eighteen hundreds, mathematicians found 1) projective geometry; or, at least, there was a renewed interest in it, and 2) algebraic invariants. They soon worked to find algebraic invariants of geometry. Also in the eighteen hundreds, mathematicians found abstract algebraic structures of groups, fields, and rings. Hermann Weyl in the twentieth century, with the above book systematized the work of finding algebraic invariant descriptions of these algebraic structures. A quick description is he found factorizations of tensors. I don't know about you, but I'm stimulated right now!

I've known this stimulated state for a long time now. It's when I'm so excited, I can't sit down and study!
not rated yet Oct 03, 2014
For the quintessential "vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn" see Poe's A Descent into the Maelström.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.