A study published in the journal Neuron, claims that curiosity is beneficial for learning. According to this research, it is easier for people to memorize and retain information about the topics that interest them because this state of intrinsic motivation increases the activity of the midbrain, nucleus accumbens and hippocampus (areas of the brain related to learning, memory and repetition of pleasurable behaviors).
Although many of us have already experienced it, these findings could help scientists find new ways to improve learning and memory, and could provide new educational strategies for teachers.
The relationship between curiosity and learning is not new
That we learn more quickly on the subjects which arouse our interest and our curiosity is not new. Surely, when a person says “that he does not like or that he is not curious about what he is studying”, he will find it difficult to carry out a good learning. In fact, we learn much better through meaningful learning. But this research provides information on how curiosity relates to the functioning of the brain and how intrinsic motivation affects learning.
Matthias Gruber and colleagues conducted research at the University of California and found that when we are curious about something, our mind not only absorbs what interests us, but we also memorize the data surrounding the question that interests us, And which is first of all foreign to the object of curiosity. On the other hand, the researchers also concluded that the hippocampus, which helps in memory formation, is activated more when we show more interest.
Nucleus accumbens: motivation, pleasure and learning
One area of the brain involved in motivating and repeating pleasurable behaviors is the nucleus accumbens (which is part of the reward system). It is found in both hemispheres and receives afferents from various brain centers related to the emotions (Tonsils and hypothalamus) and the Memory (Emotional, procedural and declarative). In addition, it receives dopaminergic afferents from the ventral tegmental area and motor areas of the cortex. The presence of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens facilitates long-term memory and learning.
But the nucleus accumbens is also related to motivation, and curiosity triggers the reward circuit (Of which the nucleus accumbens is part). Guber says: “We have shown that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the same areas of the brain that are heavily involved in tangible extrinsic motivation.”
On the other hand, as other research had concluded in the past, to activate the nucleus accumbens the event must be new and unexpected (This does not match the information we have stored in memory). After this research, it seems that curiosity, which can be understood as the search for novelty or the desire to know or discover something, also activates it.
Study data and conclusions
To conduct the study, 19 students were recruited to rate over 100 questions as trivial, indicating their degree of curiosity (0 to 6) and their perception of self-confidence to answer correctly.
Then the scientists they measured each subject’s brain activity using an imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). During this time, on a screen, each participant saw the questions they deemed curious or not curious, and each question took 14 seconds to appear. During this time, images of faces with a facial expression that had nothing to do with the questions appeared.
Later, the students answered these questions and in addition they had a surprise exam which they had to remember the faces. The results indicated that theyour subjects remembered the faces in 71% of the cases where they described the question as curious. In contrast, in questions qualified as non-curious, they only remembered 54% of the faces.. Something that didn’t surprise anyone.
But what surprised the researchers was that when analyzing the facial recognition test, the more curious a photo (from 0 to 6), the more faces they remembered. Moreover, even though the faces had nothing to do with the questions, they memorized them even 24 hours later.
In summary, after the study, the researchers said that:
- The state of curiosity helps to improve learning, As we memorize the topics we find the most interesting (even if they are more difficult).
- When the “state of curiosity” is activated in our brain, we are able to retain information even accessory material (The one we’re not so curious about at first).
- The state of curiosity activates the nucleus accumbens and the midbrain in our brain (Areas involved in learning, memory, motivation and reinforcement of pleasurable behaviors) and the hippocampus.
- The material we learn when our brains are activated in this way it lasts much longer, leading to meaningful learning.