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Harnessing what happens when curiosity lights up the brain
The study said people are better at learning when they are curious about information, but curiosity also enhances memory for "incidental material" seen in passing. - photo by Annie-Claude Bedard,

Arousing a person's curiosity lights up the brain in ways that appear to enhance both learning and memory, according to researchers at the University of California at Davis, offering help to parents and teachers as they work with children.

But curiosity's impact could reach even farther and open the door to assisting people later in life with brain function decline. The effect of curiosity on the brain seems to hold for both healthy individuals and those with neurological conditions, according to a study published Oct. 2 in the Cell Press journalNeuron.

The study said people are better at learning when they are curious about information, but curiosity also enhances memory for "incidental material" seen in passing.

For the study, college students were presented a series of trivia questions. The ones to which they already knew the answers were eliminated. Then each person was asked to rate the remaining questions based on how curious he or she was to learn the answer.

Next, each was observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging while learning the answers to the questions. They saw the question, then before the answer loaded on the computer screen, they saw a photograph of a "neutral" face that had nothing to do with the question or answer. They were later given a memory test to see if they recognized the faces.

Participants did better on trivia questions about which they were more curious. They also were better at learning the faces that were shown while they were considering the questions that made them curious. What they learned while curious was retained better when they were tested 24 hours later, as well.

"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," Dr. Matthias Gruber, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, said on the university's Egghead blog.

“Curiosity enhances learning," Robert Bilder, Michael E. Tennenbaum Family Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, who had no part in the study, told Today. "One of the non-obvious outcomes [is] how curiosity impacted ... learning of incidental material.”

Science Recorder summarized the findings this way: "The study revealed three major findings: First, when people were exceedingly curious to discover the answer to a question, they were better at learning that information. Second, the researchers discovered that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward. Third, the researchers discovered that when curiosity motivated learning, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for forming new memories, and increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit."

"Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a cortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it," Gruber said in awritten statement.

His study co-author and principal investigator, Charan Ranganath, also of UC Davis, discussed the finding that curiosity-enhanced learning increases activity in the hippocampus, which is crucial to making new memories, and also increased interactions between that part of the brain and the reward system. "So curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brian 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," he said.

On the Egghead blog, Andy Fell wrote that "Brain circuits that rely on dopamine tend to decline in function with aging, or sooner in people with neurological or psychiatric disorders. Understanding the relationship between motivation and memory could stimulate new efforts to improve memory in the healthy elderly and new approaches for treating patients with memory disorders. And in the classroom or workplace, learning could be enhanced if teachers or managers can engage students’ and workers’ curiosity about something they are naturally motivated to learn."

Today's Meghan Holohan suggests other ways to keep the brain sharp. "Studies of Buddhist monks show that meditation helps them experience less stress and anger.

Even meditation novices experience less stress and anxiety and it can also help people lose belly fat," she writes. "Learning anything new, whether it's a second language or musical instrument, improves brain health, as does reading."

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