The Wick in the Candle of Learning

Curiosity in Action in the Brain

Have you ever wondered about how curiosity might affect your brain? About how it might affect your memory? A group of scientists out of the lab of Professor Colin Camerer at CalTech University took a closer look at these questions.

In their 2009 article, “The Wick in the Candle of Learning: Epistemic Curiosity Activates Reward Circuitry and Enhances Memory, they sought to add some clarity to the “psychological and neural underpinnings” of curiosity that they say remain “poorly understood.”

(Kang, M. J., Hsu, M., Krajbich, I. M., Loewenstein, G., McClure, S. M., Wang, J. T., & Camerer, C. F. (2009). The Wick in the Candle of Learning: Epistemic Curiosity Activates Reward Circuitry and Enhances Memory. Psychological Science, 20(8), 963-973. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02402.x)

Their study entailed asking 19 undergraduate students 40 random trivia questions while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging of their brains. The questions ranged from “What instrument was invented to sound like human singing?” (the violin) to “What is the name of the galaxy that Earth is a part of?” (Milky Way).

   A young man and woman taking a test    A young man and woman taking a test

The participants were instructed to silently guess the answer and mark how curious they were about their correct answer and their confidence in their guess. Then they saw the question again with the correct answer.

After completing those questions, they were asked the questions again to test their memory of the previous answers. The results add some food for thought about the neurological effects of curiosity.

Firstly, the study showed that, in line with previous research, curiosity reaches its maximum when it is slightly piqued, in a U-shaped curve. It then drops down the more we know about something and the less we have to wonder about. Additionally, it is worth clarifying that the experiment involved epistemic curiosity at work, the specific kind of curiosity about one particular thing, unlike the more open and free kind of diversive curiosity. 

Secondly, the scientists found that certain regions of the brain were more active after participants were first asked the question (when they were most curious), including the left caudate, bilateral prefrontal cortex and parahippocampal gyri. The caudate in particular is generally known for being involved in reward anticipation or reward learning, the scientists point out, like how our brain reacts to winning an auction. It’s associated with an emotional response to new information.

In regards to memory, the results showed that when participants got an answer wrong, they were of course more curious about it. This also correlated with better recall of the answer the second time. The scientists wrote that this “suggests that curiosity helps to consolidate new information in memory.”

Putting this together, they relate their research to others whose studies showed that an anticipated monetary reward can positively impact memory. They argue that their research suggests curiosity, an internal motivation, can also have this positive effect on memory and learning. 

As the scientists put it, “curiosity strengthens memory of correct answers when people initially make incorrect guesses – that is, that curiosity is linked to the reward value of information and also enhances learning from new information.”

The researchers conclude that these findings and a generally better understanding of curiosity will help people digest and find information themselves, as well as guide others that work to foster curiosity in others. 

“The fact that curiosity increases with uncertainty (up to a point) suggests that a small amount of knowledge can pique curiosity and prime the hunger for knowledge, much as an olfactory or visual stimulus can prime a hunger for food,” they write. “This observation might suggest ways for educators to ignite the wick in the candle of learning.”

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