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Can Curiosity be the Key to Learning Anything?

Did that catchy headline intrigue you? Yes? Then there’s a good chance you’ll remember what you’re about to read next. The link between curiosity and learning seems obvious, but the effect of piquing curiosity on our ability to learn is of great interest to neuroscientists. A 2014 study found that the greater interest our knowledge-craving brains have in a topic, the likelier we are to retain information about itResearchers observed “anticipatory” activity in the brain that suggests a link between our motivation for external rewards (money, fame) and our natural curiosity. So, if you’ve ever dredged through an article without remembering a single thing, slinking back to the first paragraph in frustration, but find yourself recalling the details of an equally dense article that you only clicked out of curiosity—that’s just how our brains work.

Hungry Brain

According to a 2018 study, our brains treat curiosity much like hunger—it’s an itch we have to scratch, and we’re willing to take risks to sate it. The researchers in the study theorized that, “curiosity triggers incentive salience [wanting] for unknown information.” This wanting can be so strong that it triggers impulsive behavior, even if the information at stake is not immediately consequential. We probably express this a couple times a day, like crossing the street to read a poster when you’re already late for work or succumbing to clickbait even when we spot it. On a neurological level, participants in the study seemed to crave information such as trivia in the same way they desired food. We have an inherent lust for learning, and it permeates most aspects of our life. For the most part, this is a positive thing, but our informavore (a being that consumes information) brains make us feel that curiosity viscerally, so be mindful (let’s not forget what happened to that cat).

Our brains likely evolved reward responses to help us survive, and so from an evolutionary standpoint this kind of intense curiosity makes a lot of sense. But surely our brain handles its desire for information a bit differently than it does say, craving potato chips, right? The answer is complicated, as it always is when it comes to that most precious gray organ, but essentially, sort of: a study of single dopamine neurons showed that primary rewards (those potato chips you’ve been thinking about since the last sentence) are processed similarly to cognitive rewards (like reading this article, who needs potato chips!) In their article about that study and related research, Vivian Hemmelder and Tommy Blanchard of Harvard University stated that, “What this body of research demonstrates is that primates [that includes us] really are informavores–information stimulates our brains the same way food and sex do. Yet there are also parts of our brains that differentiate between information and other rewards, allowing for behavioral flexibility and complex decision making.” So, we are hard-wired to crave learning, and process it as a reward—but information is digested and handled by our brain in distinct ways.

The Power of Uncertainty

Discovering ways to manifest our intense curiosity can empower educators of all kinds to reach more people and help them to retain what they’ve learned. You could even try it on yourself; think realistically about what inspires you and piques your interest and try to direct your learning in a way that integrates those things.

You never know…

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