The Science of Curiosity

A recent study has confirmed a long-suspected trend: curiosity improves memory and learning capabilities. It is not without reason that we tend to excel in those classes that interest us the most. According to the study, published last week in the journal Neuron, the mental state of curiosity enhances motivation to learn and improves long-term memory.

In the course of the study, researchers at the University of California quizzed volunteers and had them rate their level of curiosity toward each question’s subject matter. Using functional magnetic resonance technology, the researchers observed the activity in the various sectors of the subjects’ brains as they answered the questions.

The study found that higher levels of curiosity corresponded with greater activity in the hippocampus region of the brain, which has been identified as instrumental in forming new memories. The researchers also noted increased activity in the reward mechanism of the brain, which incites excitement.

One day after the initial test, volunteers were able to recall the correct answers to seventy-one percent of the questions they’d expressed a high level of curiosity toward, as compared to a fifty-four percent recollection rate for the low-curiosity questions, according to Deborah Kotz of the Boston Globe.

Interestingly enough, the subjects also had a high recollection of random information, such as facial expressions, that were shown during the points of the test at which they were most curious.

“Curiosity recruits the reward system,” said the study’s co-author, Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist at the University of California. “Interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are most likely to learn and retain information.”

Ranganath and his fellow researchers hope their findings will benefit classrooms and senior centers by informing educators on techniques that can stimulate learning and prevent memory loss.