It seems common sense that a person’s level of curiosity can improve their ability to learn, but did you know curiosity also improves the brain’s ability to remember information? Research shows that it can! According to a study published in 2014, when people are intrinsically interested in something, that intense curiosity activates areas of the brain related to reward and memory formation by creating dopamine. “Researchers generally describe state curiosity as a motivational state that stimulates exploration and information seeking to reduce uncertainty” (Gruber, Gelman, and Ranganath). That extra bit of motivation we feel when we are curious is a result of a chemical cascade in our brains meant to encourage a heightened state of curiosity, which also helps us learn.
Case in point, I initially came across this association between curiosity and dopamine while reading a book with a larger group of people. It wasn’t a book I would have picked out myself, and as such I had difficulty getting into the reading. It wasn’t until the author briefly mentioned how curiosity triggers a dopamine response in the brain that I became interested in tuning in and finishing the book. That one tiny detail was the spark that sent me down rabbit trails of neuroscience research as I attempted to sate my own curiosity for how the state of curiosity can be our own built-in gateway drug to learning.
A Gateway Drug for Learning
We already know that particular regions of the brain are associated with learning. Curiosity triggers a chemical response in these specific brain regions associated with reward and contributes to improved memory for information. Research carried out by Gruber, Gelman and Ranganath found this to be true both for explicit information (seeking trivia answers) and incidental information (remembering unrelated faces introduced to subjects during the trivia activity). This means that incidental learning also happens during the process of heightened curiosity. In a curious state we can learn things we aren’t focused on learning. Even more, the benefits of learning while curious appear to endure over time.
What is Dopamine and Why Do I Care?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter our bodies create that is often associated with reward and motivation. It isn’t always associated with curiosity. Sometimes the reward is caused by an uncertain outcome, as in the case of risk-taking behaviors. A surprising outcome of an unknown or risky situation can also result in a dopamine response. This is partly why some individuals chase the rush of extreme sports. So, if you’re not one to don a flight suit and jump from a cliff, you may find that ramping up your curiosity is another way to make your brain feel good. Dopamine released in the hippocampus during curiosity-driven states can enhance long-term potentiation in the hippocampus, part of the brain which is associated with memory formation (Gruber, Gelman and Ranganath). Curious brains seek out information and learn from it more easily than bored brains. Is this evidence that “nerding out” can be fun?
Taking the Reigns of Curiosity
Research continues to uncover the intricate relationship between intrinsic motivation, brain activity, and memory formation, highlighting the importance of curiosity in the learning process. In that light, curiosity seems like a human superpower, so how do we cultivate curiosity as a tool to prime our brain for learning? Inquiry-based learning practice is one way. We can develop question-asking strategies that prompt questions which delve deeper than “who”, “what”, “where”, etc. Ask open-ended questions to foster discussion. Allow questions to surface over time by making space to revisit topics. Welcome diverse perspectives through collaboration. It may be that you already practice many of these strategies. If you’re comfortable with them, consider guiding students through the inquiry process by providing structure and milestones for their research. As part of this, ask students to keep a research journal that details how they adjust their thinking and progress over time. Engage students in discussions that help them refine their inquiry, then engage them in metacognitive activities that encourage them to reflect on their learning journey, the challenges they encountered, and the insights they gained during the process. In her book Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms, developmental and cognitive psychologist Wendy Osteroff suggests we might use these skills in our teaching practice to foster a culture of questioning in our classrooms to connect topics students find “boring” to topics they find more engaging. As students become comfortable in an environment that welcomes questions, they may find they develop the skills to pique their own curiosity and become more effective learners.
Gruber, Matthias J, and Charan Ranganath. “How Curiosity Enhances Hippocampus-Dependent Memory: The Prediction, Appraisal, Curiosity, and Exploration (PACE) Framework.” Trends in cognitive sciences vol. 23,12 (2019): 1014-1025. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2019.10.003
Gruber, Matthias J, et al. “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit.” Elsevier, 22 Oct. 2014, Accessed 20 Oct. 2023.
Ostroff, Wendy L. Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms: How to Promote and Sustain Deep Learning, ASCD, 13 July 2016.
Curious for More?
Brewer, J. (2022, January 6). The science of curiosity. Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-curiosity/
Kidd, Celeste, and Benjamin Y Hayden. “The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity.” Neuron vol. 88,3 (2015): 449-60. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.010
Livio, Mario. “Curious about Curiosity.” Curious about Curiosity | Natural History Magazine, Natural History Magazine, Inc, June 2017, www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/123206/curious-about-curiosity.
Sample, Ian. “Curiosity Improves Memory by Tapping Into the Brain’s Reward System” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Oct. 2014, www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/02/curiosity-memory-brain-reward-system-dopamine. torymag.com/features/123206/curious-about-curiosity
Singh, Maanvi. “Curiosity: It Helps Us Learn, NPR, NPR, 24 Oct. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/24/357811146/curiosity-it-may-have-killed-the-cat-but-it-helps-us-learn. -function/