Your Curiosity Fix is Enhancing Your Memory and Intellect

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Curiosity allegedly killed the cat – but no one ever mentions how satisfaction brought him back.

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. Matthias Gruber.

Take a look at the current lackluster educational systems in place and it becomes clear – the more curious we would be about a topic, the easier it is to soak up information about it. Ask anyone who took four years of Spanish and remembers none of it – then talk to that person after he travels and immerses himself in the language – what happens? What happens when you are motivated to investigate something deeper?

New research publishing online October 2 in the Cell Press journal Neuron provides insights into what happens in our brains when curiosity is piqued.

Scientists think they have found ways to enhance overall learning and memory in both healthy people and those with neurological conditions.

Lead author Dr. Gruber, of University of California at Davis said:

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.

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 memory test 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.
  • Second, the investigators found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward. 

Gruber says:

    We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation,

This reward circuit relies on dopamine, a chemical messenger that relays messages between neurons. (In other words, curiosity is kind of drug-like, but in a good way.)

  • 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. 

principal investigator Dr. Charan Ranganath said:

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.

The brain circuits that rely on dopamine tend to decline in function as people get older, or sooner in people with neurological conditions. The dysfunction of dopamine uptake is associated with ADHD symptomology and some mood disorders. On a side note, these problems are at least in part caused and definitely exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies and chemicals/toxins that affect neurological development.

But – understanding the relationship between motivation and memory could stimulate new efforts to improve memory in the healthy elderly and for new approaches for helping people with memory disorders. They anticipate that for 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.

Beyond that – what has the curiosity fix done for you, lately?

Neuron, Gruber et al.: “States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit.”

Heather Callaghan is a natural health blogger and food freedom activist. You can see her work at and Like at Facebook.

Recent posts by Heather Callaghan:

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