Whether it’s the answer to a trivia question or the punch line of a joke, we’ve all felt the anticipation of waiting for the unknown. In spite of the interest surrounding the origins of curiosity, what exactly is happening in the brain when a person feels curious has remained relatively mysterious. A new study published this week looked at how curiosity influences a person’s ability to learn and retain new information and provides new information about where in the brain curiosity might be coming from.
The researchers presented participants with a list of trivia questions and asked them how curious they were to know the answers to the questions. They then put each participant into an MRI and flashed those same questions on a screen. Before giving them the answer, the researchers showed unrelated pictures of faces on the screen. A day after the MRI was complete, the authors then quizzed each participant to see how much they remembered both of the answers to the questions and the faces that preceded them.
They found that increased curiosity led to similar increases in how much material was retained. The more curious a participant was about the answer to a question, the better they remembered the answer and the face that preceded it. This second finding was important because it indicated that the brain processes involved in curiosity-associated learning had to do with the anticipation in knowing the answer. In other words, the more you anticipate learning something, the better you seem to remember it and any other information presented during that period of anticipation.
In looking through the MRI scans, the researchers found that situations that drew more curiosity also more heavily activated brain circuits reliant on dopamine to activate the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped region of the brain involved in the formation of new memories that also helps you remember locations. They also saw activity in regions of the brain typically related to release of dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that has many complex roles. One of those roles is alerting the brain to reward. When we find out something is going to make us feel good, dopamine is released. In this case, it seems dopamine may help to signal the brain that important information is coming our way. That ensures that when important information enters the brain, we hold onto it.
Scientists care about dopamine pathways because they’re related to a variety of diseases like Parkinson’s, depression and schizophrenia. Much is still unknown about why memory declines with age or why memory deficits can appear in certain psychiatric disorders. This research indicates that dopamine could be involved in memory troubles if curiosity fails to activate its release the way it normally should. As a result, important information is readily forgotten rather than being stored.
It also has implications for learning. The most interesting finding of the study is that irrelevant information given during the period of anticipating interesting information was also remembered. While more research needs to be done to see just what the limits of this type of learning might be, it indicates that being in a curious state of mind may help with your overall memory.