Ryan is a 7-year-old piano student in one of my classes, an adorable and exasperating little boy who is infinitely curious. He walks into the classroom and immediately starts firing off questions:
“What’s that sign?”
“When are we going to learn b minor?”
“What does that mean?”
“How do you write out this rhythm?”
“What does the middle pedal do?”
And so on, endlessly. It’s both endearing and exhausting. He is also, you might guess, sharp as a tack, eagerly retaining every piece of information I impart in class.
Not surprising, these two traits, curiosity and learning ability, are known to go together. And a recent study published in the journal Neuron shows how they are connected on an anatomical level. The researchers, led by Matthias Gruber from the University of California at Davis, gave people a stack of questions and asked them to rate how curious they were to know the answers. Then, they put each person in an fMRI scanner to look at what parts of the brain were active while they were learning the answers to the questions. While in the scanner, the subjects were shown one of the questions. They then saw a picture of random person’s face, and then the answer to the question. This was repeated for the whole stack of questions. Later, the researchers tested whether the subjects had learned the answers to the questions, and found that, in each case, when the subject was most curious about the answer, he or she was most likely to remember it.
The interesting part of this study comes next: the researchers also tested to see which faces the subjects remembered best. They found that subjects remembered faces presented after a curiosity-provoking question, but that faces presented after a low-curiosity question were not remembered well. In other words, simply putting someone in a state of high curiosity increased their ability to remember all information, not just information the person was curious about.
The fMRI data in this study show that during states of high curiosity, there is increased activity in the midbrain, and in the nucleus accumbens, two areas of the brain known to be involved in motivation and reward. Intrinsic motivation, our desire for knowledge, activates the same areas as external motivators. The fMRI data also showed that the greatest memory benefit from curiosity occurred when there was co-activation of the midbrain motivation areas along with the hippocampus, a structure long known to be important for learning. The researchers speculate that activity in the motivation pathways of the brain might drive increased activity in the hippocampus, and this co-activation is the anatomical explanation for why curiosity aids learning.
As a teacher, I find this result both fascinating and useful. The take-home for me is that I can increase my students' ability to learn simply by calling on their curiosity. Instead of just telling them information, I can ask them questions, get them wondering about the answers first, to activate those intrinsic motivation pathways. If they’re wondering what the answer is, they’re more likely to remember it when I tell them, and they'll also remember other information I tell them at the same time.
As for Ryan, lately he’s dying to learn about 6/8 time. What is it? What does it mean? I think I’ll keep him in suspense a little longer (since it doesn’t come up in the curriculum until after Christmas). In this case, I don’t think curiosity will kill the cat; instead, it will prime the hippocampus to help Ryan remember what I teach him.
Gruber, M.J., Gelman, B.D., and Ranganath, C. (2014). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron 84, 486–496.