Being curious about something actually changes the way the brain behaves, preparing it to learn something new. In fact, a piqued interest doesn't just ready the brain for the immediately relevant learning material, but also enable our brains to better absorb incidental information too.
In other words, curiosity is a magic elixir that greases our intellectual gears. That's the takeaway, at least, from a new study by a team of researchers led by Dr. Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis.
Ranganath and his colleagues arrived at their conclusion after giving 19 study participants a trivia test. First, participants were asked to review upwards of 150 questions, rating how much each question intrigued them -- or how curious they were about the answer. Afterwards, the 19 participants were read 112 of the questions and answers, half of which they'd adjudged to be interesting and the other half boring. While being asked to memorize the answers to each question, participants had their brain activity scanned.
In addition to being asked to memorize the answers, participants were also shown and asked to memorize pictures of human faces, unrelated to the trivia questions. Afterwards, participants were given a test to measure their ability to recall the trivia answers and faces.
Researchers found that participants were better able to remember both trivia answers and the unrelated face if they were curious about the question. A follow-up test the next day confirmed the memory-enhancing effects of curiosity.
The MRI scans helped Ranganath and his fellow researchers understand how exactly this was happening inside the brain. Curiosity precipitated increased activity in the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain most involved in the formation of memories.
"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," Ranganath explained in a press release.
The findings were detailed this week in the journal Neuron.
"Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation -- curiosity -- affects memory," said lead study author Dr. Matthias Gruber, also a neuroscientist at UC Davis. "These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings."