Curiosity: It Helps us Learn but Why?

Curiosity and Pleasure


Can curiosity trigger a pleasure response in the brain that helps people remember things they are less curious about? reported on a study published in the journal Neuron that looked at the connection between curiosity and brain activity. The researchers hooked the subjects up to a brain MRI and asked trivia questions about popular topics. Later, when the researchers and subjects discussed the trivia, the subjects were asked how curious they were about the answer. While the research was taking place, subjects were shown photos of random faces, without any explanation as to why.


The study showed that subjects’ memory of the trivia and the faces were improved when the MRI images confirmed that the subjects were feeling curious. Researchers attributed this to a chemical link between parts of the brain involved in curiosity and those that regulate pleasure. The chemical link, called dopamine, plays a role in enhancing the connections between parts of the brain that are involved in learning.


The brain releases dopamine as sort of a reward. It is a reward for positive experiences like starting a new adventure, but it is also released for less positive experiences such as when a person gambles or ingests addictive drugs like cocaine.


For many people, learning about new things increases dopamine in the brain. This leads to interesting questions about whether and how teachers can use this reward response to their advantage in the classroom when teaching STEM subjects. If a student is curious about architecture, will she enhance her math learning if the teacher gives her a word problem that involves the construction of a building? Will the effect last from morning through the afternoon, or if the subject changes to biology? Can the activity of highly curious students affect other students who may be bored with the same material?


If this makes you curious, you can find the study here (payment is required for the full study, but the abstract is free).