On July 18th, 2017 we learned about

Your brain bestows rewards when you cater to your curiosity

There’s a certain satisfaction in finding the answer to a question. You might call it a spark of excitement, a moment when things click, or even an epiphany, but studies of brain activity would probably call it dopamine. Researchers at the University of California, Davis were looking at the intersection of curiosity and learning, and found that not only does learning about questions that pique your interest help you retain information, but it also gives you the neurological equivalent of a lollipop as further reward for learning about the world.

Rewards and retention

The study started by finding out what volunteers were curious about. From a list around 100 trivia questions, each participant indicated which items they thought were interesting to find out about. Participants then reviewed the same lists, plus found out the answers, while having their brain activity scanned in an fMRI machine. When a question that had previously been indicated as a point of interest was answered, brain activity was punctuated with activity in the brain’s reward centers. Brains treated satisfied curiosity like a taste of candy or the receipt of money, complete with an extra dose of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Learning about these points of interest was a literally a pleasurable experience.

While volunteers were feeling good about learning that the word dinosaur means “terrible lizard,” their brain was doing other work as well. The hippocampus was active while the trivia questions were observed, indicating that participants’ brains were working on new memories. Appropriately, people were able to more easily remember the answers to questions they had been curious about later on compared to trivia that was of less interest. That’s not to say that you have to care about every topic you hope to learn about though, as a second aspect of the experiment found that other learning was taking place at the same time.

Incidental information

Mixed in with the all the questions and answers, random images of faces were also flashed in front of participants, without further explanation. Participants were later asked about those faces, and people who were feeling curious later remembered more of the faces than people who weren’t as engaged. Even though the faces were unrelated to the trivia questions, they were apparently remembered as part of the experience of learning. Researchers compared it to the way that you might remember banal circumstances surrounding an important event, like the food you were eating when you got learned some long-awaited news.

All this indicates that learning about things you’re curious about is much more efficient and enjoyable than topics you don’t care about. Of course, that’s not always an option, even for two-year-olds who won’t stop asking “why?” over and over. The backup may be to couple topics you’re excited about with slightly less interesting stuff, almost like a word problem on your favorite topic in an otherwise difficult math class. Satisfying your curiosity will hopefully be pleasurable enough to write other memories to your brain at the same time.

Source: What’s Going on Inside the Brain Of A Curious Child? by Maanvi Singh, Mind/Shift

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