When our curiosity is piqued, learning can be a snap and recalling the new information comes effortlessly. But when it comes to things we don’t care about—the recipe to that “delicious” holiday fruitcake or, if we’re not really into football, the results of this year’s San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl—the new information rarely sticks.
To probe why this might be so, neuroscientists Charan Ranganath and Matthias Gruber, and psychologist Bernard Gelman, all at the University of California at Davis, devised a multi-step experiment to explore which regions of the brain are activated when we are curious, and how curiosity enhances our ability to learn and remember.
The team recruited 19 students and asked them to rate more than 100 trivia questions. The students were encouraged to rate how confident they were that they knew the answer and their level of curiosity.
The scientists next measured the brain activity of each student using an imaging technique called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). While lying in the scanner each participant was shown trivia questions that stumped them, some of which piqued their curiosity and others that didn’t. As the students anticipated each answer, a photograph of a stranger flashed onto the screen. When the photo disappeared, a few seconds passed before the answer appeared. This sequence was repeated 112 times.
Each student left the MRI scanner and took a quiz on the answers to the trivia questions and recall of the faces. When Ranganath’s team scored the tests, they found the students recalled 71% of the answers that really piqued their curiosity compared to 54% of the answers that didn’t .
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