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New research shows how curiosity fosters learning

Are you curious about why you learn more effectively when you’re curious about a subject? The chances are you’ll remember the research findings you’re about to read about. New research published Thursday in the journal Neuron suggests that people are more intrinsically motivated to learn when they are in a state of curiosity, and this mental state enhances long-term memory.

In the study, researchers from the University of California at Davis asked volunteers to rate how curious they were about particular trivia questions and then imaged their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging while they answered the questions. They found that being in a curious state increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for forming new memories; it also increased activity in the brain’s reward system that triggers feelings of excitement and pleasure.


When the volunteers were asked to recall the answers to questions a day after the imaging, they were able to correctly recall 71 percent of the correct answers to high-curiosity questions compared to 54 percent of low-curiosity questions. They also were better able to recall incidental facts, like facial images, that they were exposed to while they were in this curious state.

“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,” study co-author Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist at UC Davis, said in a statement.

He and his colleagues plan to do further research to determine how curiosity can be used in school settings to enhance learning or in senior centers to stave off age-related memory loss.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.