We forget most of the countless things we learn about and experience on any given day, which is largely a good thing, since most information is not worth retaining. But why do we remember some unimportant things and not others?
One factor is curiosity: The more curious we are about something we witness or are trying to learn about, the more likely we’ll absorb it and remember it.
Neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, conducted a study to test curiosity as a motivator of learning and to see what happens in the brain when curiosity is piqued. It was published in October 2014 in the journal Neuron.
Participants were first asked to rate their curiosity about a series of trivia questions (for example, “What does the term ‘dinosaur’ actually mean?”). They then were shown the answers on a screen (“terrible lizard”), but before each answer popped up, a picture of someone’s face flashed. Afterwards, they were given a recognition test for the faces they had seen, then a memory test for the answers to the trivia questions. At various times during the study, participants had their brains scanned via functional MRIs.
As expected, when people were curious about a question, they were more likely to remember the answer. Surprisingly, they were also better at remembering the unrelated faces they were shown while their curiosity was aroused. What’s more, they were more likely to retain the information 24 hours later.
The MRIs revealed that when curiosity was aroused and satisfied, reward centers in the brain (which rely on the neurotransmitter dopamine) were stimulated. In addition, there was increased activity in the hippocampus (a region important for forming new memories) as well as increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit. As a result, people are more likely to learn and retain information when curious.
Such findings about the relationship between internal motivation (in this case curiosity) and cognition may help researchers and clinicians better understand and treat memory problems in older people, who tend to have declines in the brain circuits that rely on dopamine. And teachers or managers may be able to enhance learning of seemingly boring material or skills by having students and workers do curiosity-stimulating tasks beforehand.
“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,” according to the lead author, Matthias Gruber.