Whether we’re assigned a learning task or choose to follow it, those subjects that interest us are always easier to comprehend, assimilate and remember over a long time. In this context, interest is actually another word for curiosity and a new research found that it is an important factor for effective learning. The team at University of California, Davis, found that a dopamine spike sparked by curiosity facilitates learning not only of the subject at hand, but incidental information also. The findings could prove useful to doctors looking to treat people with memory deficiency, like those suffering of Parkinson’s, as well as professional working in education to inspire them to make their classes more curiosity orientated.

Preparing the brain for learning

Photo: quotevadis.com

Photo: quotevadis.com

The UC Davis team invited 19 participants to answer a trivia questionnaire made up of 112 questions. In the test, the volunteers had to rate how confident they were of responding correctly to the question at hand, as well as how interesting they found it. The again, another round of trivia was given, with questions made up only of those the participants didn’t answer right – half intriguing, half downright boring. After each question appeared on the screen, following a 14 second pause, a random face flashed for up to two seconds. The answer to the question was then revealed. The whole process was carried out while the participants had their brain activity scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

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The scans showed that during the waiting period brain activity ramped up in two regions in the midbrain, the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens. These regions are responsible for transmitting dopamine – a neurotransmitter that makes you feel pleasure and regulates the reward system. This suggests that the brain was already engaged in the reward system, triggering pleasure before the answer to the question was revealed. The more curious a subject was, the more his or her brain engaged this anticipatory network, brain scans showed.

“When we compare trials where people are highly curious to know an answer with trials where they are not, and look at the differences in brain activity, it beautifully follows the pathways in the brain that are involved in transmitting dopamine signals,” said Chara Ranganath, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis. “The activity ramps up and the amount it ramps up is highly correlated with how curious they are.”

An hour later after the initial trivia, participants were engaged in a memory test. The results show that students were more apt remembering both the answer and related face (incidental info) related to questions that sparked their curiosity.  On average, they remembered 35 of 50 answers when they were curious, compared with 27 out of 50 when they were not. Similar results were reported when a memory test was conducted a day after the initial trivia round suggesting the effects curiosity has on memory are long-lasting.

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Besides, an increased dopamine rush, fMRI scans showed that curiosity was increased activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory formation.  In fact, the degree to which the hippocampus and reward pathways interacted could predict an individual’s ability to remember the incidentally introduced faces. Basically, curiosity prepped the brain for learning.

“There are times when people feel they can take in a lot of new information, and other times when they feel their memories are terrible,” said Ranganath. “This work suggests that once you light that fire of curiosity, you put the brain in a state that’s more conducive to learning. Once you get this ramp-up of dopamine, the brain becomes more like a sponge that’s ready to soak up whatever is happening.”

The findings reported in the journal Neuron could prove to be very important for optimizing knowledge acquisition in education. More engaged classes that spur curiosity could have a long lasting effect. Curiosity, however, is a subjective trait; people get excited by different subjects. This would explain why so many kids feel burned out at school, where they’re exposed to a plethora of general subjects – some to their liking, while others come off as totally boring.