Curiosity Augments Learning, Memory

Pam Harrison

October 08, 2014

Heightened curiosity ― a form of intrinsic motivation ― enhances learning, not only of key information but also of incidental material presented simultaneously, new research shows.

Matthias Gruber, PhD, and colleagues from the Center for Neuroscience, University of California, Davis, found that participants showed improved memory for information that they were curious about in a laboratory setting as well as for incidental material learned during states of high curiosity.

"The most surprising finding to us was on a behavioral level, where we saw that people studied interesting information and they created these curious states, but when we showed them unrelated, noninteresting information, they remembered it better when they were in a highly curious state than when there were not," Dr Gruber told Medscape Medical News.

"So curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn and also everything around it."

The study was published online October 2 in Neuron.

Real-World Implications?

Initially, each participant rated their own curiosity to learn answers to a series of trivia questions.

When they were later presented with a selected trivia question, there was a 14-second delay before the answer was provided, during which time participants were shown a picture of a neutral, unrelated face.

Afterwards, participants performed a surprise recognition memory test for the faces that were presented to them during the anticipatory period followed by a memory test for the answers to the trivia questions.

During certain parts of the study, functional magnetic resonance imaging was also performed to identify areas of the brain that are recruited during states of high curiosity.

Investigators found that participants recalled significantly more answers (70.6%) to high-curiosity questions than answers to low-curiosity questions (54.1%) (P < .001).

They also observed that recognition performance for the incidental learning of faces was higher when faces were encoded during states of high curiosity than when faces were encoded during low- curiosity states.

"This small, but significant effect is in line with the idea that a curious state can benefit learning of incidental information," the researchers note.

Investigators also observed that when curiosity motivated learning, there was increased activity in the hippocampus ― a region of the brain required for the formation of new memories ― as well as increased interactions between the hippocampus and the dopaminergic, or so-called reward, circuit.

"This suggests that curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance," principal investigator Charan Ranganath, PhD, also of University of California, Davis, said in a statement.

This is the first study to suggest that once the dopaminergic system is stimulated, not only is information that might be considered rewarding to an individual better retained but also less interesting information around it is retained as well.

If these observations prove to be generalizable, "there might be some nice 'real-world' implications for learning," said Dr Gruber.

For example, in the classroom, teachers could try to create a kind of suspense for students ― start with an interesting question and not just provide information right away ― as a way to enhance learning in the classroom.

Understanding the relationship between motivation and memory could also stimulate new efforts to improve memory in the healthy elderly and to develop new approaches for treating patients with disorders that affect memory.

Growing Body of Evidence

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Alison Adcock, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, neurobiology, and psychology and neuroscience, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, said the implications of current research build on her own research, which shows that providing individuals with financial incentives engages the same reward circuit as is engaged during heightened states of curiosity and similarly enhances learning and memory.

In one particular study (Neuron. 2006;50:507-17), Dr Adcock and colleagues found that key brain areas where the dopamine neurons are located were activated when people were cued as to how much each of the pictures presented to them would be worth if they could recognize the picture on a test the next day.

"The more that area responded, the better your memory was for the thing you were about to see," Dr Adcock said. "It's exactly analogous to the pattern that this group are reporting except that we triggered activation [of the reward circuit] with a monetary cue instead of a question."

The "tweak" in the current experiment was that researchers inserted information between the cue and the reward ― the incidental faces ― and they were able to show that memory of incidental information presented between the cue and the reward was similarly enhanced, she added.

Dr Adcock and colleagues also demonstrated a similar finding in a more recent experiment. In that study (Cereb Cortex. 2014;24:2160-8), researchers triggered reward anticipation, and then they introduced a small element of surprise while participants were waiting for a stimulus to which they were expected to respond quickly and then earn a reward.

"In this situation, we also see enhanced memory for that little surprise, so I think it nicely complements the current study because you can see enhancement of memory for the thing that occurs while you are in this state of reward anticipation," Dr Adcock said.

Dr Gruber and Dr Adcock report no relevant financial relationships.

Neuron. Published online October 2, 2014. Abstract

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