LOOK: Curiosity Helps Us Learn, But Why?

The Limbic Reward System lights up when curiosity is piqued.

"There's this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding," Ranganath explains. This circuit lights up when we get money, or candy. It also lights up when we're curious.

By Maanvi Singh - NPR

How does a sunset work? We love to look at one, but Jolanda Blackwell wanted her eighth-graders to really think about it, to wonder and question.

So Blackwell, who teaches science at Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High in Davis, Calif., had her students watch a video of a sunset on YouTube as part of a physics lesson on motion.

"I asked them: 'So what's moving? And why?' " Blackwell says. The students had a lot of ideas. Some thought the sun was moving; others, of course, knew that a sunset is the result of the Earth spinning around on its axis.

Once she got the discussion going, the questions came rapid-fire. "My biggest challenge usually is trying to keep them patient," she says. "They just have so many burning questions."

Students asking questions and then exploring the answers. That's something any good teacher lives for. And at the heart of it all is curiosity.

Blackwell, like many others teachers, understands that when kids are curious, they're much more likely to stay engaged.

But why? What, exactly, is curiosity and how does it work? A study published in the October issue of the journal Neuron suggests that the brain's chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us better learn and retain information.

Our Brains On Curiosity

"In any given day, we encounter a barrage of new information," says Charan Ranganath, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis and one of the researchers behind the study. "But even people with really good memory will remember only a small fraction of what happened two days ago."

Ranganath was curious to know why we retain some information and forget other things.

So he and his colleagues rounded up 19 volunteers and asked them to review more than 100 trivia questions. Questions such as, "What does the term 'dinosaur' actually mean?" and "What Beatles single lasted longest on the charts, at 19 weeks?"

Participants rated each question in terms of how curious they were about the answer.

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.

"There's this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding," Ranganath explains. This circuit lights up when we get money, or candy. It also lights up when we're curious.

When the circuit is activated, our brains release a chemical called dopamine, which gives us a high. "The dopamine also seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning."

Indeed, when the researchers later tested participants on what they learned, those who were more curious were more likely to remember the right answers. READ MORE

Illustration: LA Johnson/NPR


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