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Surprising Science

Curiosity: Kills the Cat, Helps the Human to Learn

A new study reveals how a state of active curiosity stimulates the brain's memory and pleasure centers, thus explaining why it's so much more effective to employ learning strategies that spark students' interest.

A new study has revealed that a state of active curiosity stimulates the brain’s memory and pleasure centers, thus explaining why it’s so much more effective to employ learning strategies that spark students’ interest.

In a piece over at NPR, Maanvi Singh profiles the study, which was published earlier this month in Neuron. Singh interviews UC Davis psychologist Charan Ranganath, one of the study’s lead researchers, who explains that the impetus of the study was to explore why humans remember certain bits of information while forgetting others. Ranganath and his team guessed that it had something to do with how interested someone is in what they’re learning.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers asked a group of volunteers to rate 100 questions based on how curious they were to find out the answer. Singh explains what happened next:

“Next, everyone reviewed the questions — and their answers — while the researchers monitored their brain activity using an MRI machine. When the participants’ curiosity was piqued, the parts of their brains that regulate pleasure and reward lit up. Curious minds also showed increased activity in the hippocampus, which is involved in the creation of memories.”

The scientists were also surprised to find that curious subjects exhibited a heightened ability to remember remembering less interesting bits of information:

“‘Say you’re watching the Breaking Bad finale,’ Ranganath explains. If you’re a huge fan of the show, you’re certainly really curious to know what happens to its main character, Walter White.

‘You’ll undoubtedly remember what happens in the finale,’ he says, but you might also remember what you ate before watching the episode, and what you did right after.”

Lessons from these findings can be applied to nearly any educational setting. The key to getting kids to memorize “boring” information (such as multiplication tables) is to spark their curiosity in other ways. What’s more, an active sense of curiosity will make kids want to explore the “why” to augment their knowledge of the “what,” particularly important in the application of a subject like mathematics. 

Take a look at the full article (linked below) and if it piques your curiosity, let us know in the comments below.

Read more at KUOW

And here’s a link to the study.

Photo credit: David Crockett / Shutterstock


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