You’re sitting at your desk, desperately trying to learn a list of facts about a mind-numbingly boring subject for an exam the next day. You give up and decide to relax by watching a documentary about a fascinating subject. After all of the effort you put into trying to learn the facts for the exam, you find that you can’t remember a single one of them, although you can remember the tiniest details from the documentary.
We all know that it’s easier to learn material that we find interesting compared to material that we find boring, but the ways in which curiosity affects memory are still mysterious. In fact, comparatively little is known about how memories are formed and stored in the brain.
The first major insight into the mechanisms of human memory came from Henry Gustav Molaison (also known as H.M.), one of the most studied patients in neuroscience history. He suffered from epilepsy and at the age of 27 underwent surgery to remove the areas of his brain thought to cause it. Unfortunately, although the surgery worked well as epilepsy treatment, it also caused severe anterograde amnesia. After the surgery, H.M. could no longer form new memories and so spent the next 50 years of his life in a steady present. This condition was attributed to the removal of the medial temporal lobes of the brain. Several experiments later demonstrated that the hippocampus, a structure within this region, plays a key role in learning and memory.
Decades of research have now identified a potential mechanism for memory: long term potentiation (LTP). When two neurons are stimulated together multiple times, the strength of the electrical connection between the neurons is increased, enhancing their ability to transmit a signal. These strengthened neural connections are thought to underlie the formation of new associations and the storage of new memories.
The curious case of the curious brain
How does the effect of complex psychological concepts like curiosity fit into this picture? A recent study, published in the journal Neuron, attempted to answer this question by studying the effect of curiosity on learning.
First, each subject was shown a series of trivia questions and was asked to rate how curious they were to find out each of the answers. Their brain activity was then monitored in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner while a selected trivia question was presented, followed by its answer. Before the answer appeared, however, the subjects were also shown a picture of a neutral face, which was unrelated to the task. After the scan, participants were tested on how well they remembered the answers to the trivia questions. They were also tested on how well they remembered the faces.
The researchers found not only that curiosity improved the participants’ memory for the trivia questions but that their increased interest also resulted in better memory for the faces shown after these questions. Furthermore, the brain scans revealed that curiosity ratings were associated with a higher activation of the nucleus accumbens, substantia nigra, and ventral tegmental area. These brain areas have previously been linked to extrinsic reward-related memory – a type of learning that concerns rewards that we recieve from the outside world, like food or money. The reward in this task – having your curiosity satisfied – came from within, however. These findings suggest that a common mechanism may be shared between extrinsic and intrinsic reward-related memory. The authors suggest that this mechanism may involve the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter already linked with learning and extrinsic reward.
So, can we all harness the power of curiosity in order to help us learn? It’s possible that drugs that act on the dopaminergic system could one day be used to boost learning and memory by acting on the same circuits that boost learning of interesting material. But for now, there’s a simple message that educators can take from this research: “Make it interesting, make me curious!”