When Curiosity Peaks...

Curiosity may kill the cat; but when it comes to learning, it stimulates the brain and enhances learning. Researchers reveal what happens in our brains when our curiosity is peaked and why this leads to better learning.

In the study, the researchers instructed participants to rate their curiosity to learn the answer to a series of trivia questions. Next, the researchers presented the participants with a selected trivia question in which there was a 14 second delay before the answer was revealed. During the delay, the participants were shown a picture of a neutral, unrelated human face.

After the exercise, the researchers periodically scanned the participants' brains using fMRI while they performed a memory test of the faces that were presented to them. The recognition test was not mentioned at the start of the experiment and they had not been asked to pay attention to the faces. 

The findings yielded three major conclusions regarding curiosity and changes in the brain:

Increased learning

First, those who are highly curious put forth the effort to seek out the answers to a particular question are better at learning the information. Although a seemingly obvious finding, this led researchers to discover that the more an individual’s curiosity is aroused the more likely he is able to learn unrelated information; i.e. information they may not have been interested in the first place.

Increased motivation

A second finding revealed that once curiosity is stimulated in the brain there is increased activity in the areas related to reward. The brain’s reward circuit relies on dopamine which acts as a “chemical messenger that relays messages between neurons.” According to the researchers, curiosity is an internal motivator that triggers the brain’s reward circuit in a similar manner that would be observed with external motivators.

Increased memory

Finally, along with stimulating the brain’s reward circuit, curiosity also increased activity in the brain’s hippocampus -an area that helps to form new memories. The increased interactions between these two areas in the brain lead to increased learning and retention.

Furthermore, the researchers conclude that being curious put the brain into a state that actually allows for learning and retention of information across a 24-hour span. The initial curiosity that leads a person to seek out the answers has a snowball effect on motivation and learning, as being curious about one thing leads to curiosity in another.

In light of this research, it follows then that allowing children autonomy in the classroom to study subjects that interest them may ultimately help children acquire and retain knowledge even beyond their initial interest.

StepUp Summary:

Students remember most what they think about most. Curiosity provides opportunities for students to think about what they are learning.  When your students are interested, inspired, and engaged to think about things memory is enhanced. Similarly, at StepUp we tell students "get your brain to practice what you want your brain to learn."  With daily, interactive exercises our programs have been shown to improve engagement, reading, math, and handwriting skills. 

At home, parents can encourage curiosity about everyday things, from a spider's web on a railing to puddles on the sidewalk to tracks in the fresh snow. Let your toddler line up the shoes in the closet or count how many steps it takes to get to the door. Let your preschooler see what happens when his pebble is thrown into the pond. Challenge your kindergartener to guess how many grapes fit into various containers, then let her fill them. Young children are sensory learners who love touching, smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing their way through the world. Dive in and have fun!

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