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 was one more twist in Ranganath’s study: Throughout the experiment, the researchers flashedhed photos of random faces, without giving the participants any explanation as to why.
Those whose curiosity was already piqued were also the best at remembering these faces.
The researchers were surprised to learn that curious brains are better at learning not only about the subject at hand but also other stuff — even incidental, boring information.
“Say you’re watching the Breaking Bad finale,” Ranganath explains. If you’re a huge fan of the show, you’re certainly really curious to know what happens to its main character, Walter White.
“You’ll undoubtedly remember what happens in the finale,” he says, but you might also remember what you ate before watching the episode, and what you did right after.
This is a phenomenon teachers can use to their advantage in the classroom, says Evie Malaia, an assistant professor at the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain and Education at the University of Texas, Arlington.
“Say a kid wants to be an astronaut,” she says. “Well, how do you link that goal with learning multiplication tables?” A teacher may choose to ask her class an interesting word problem that involves space exploration, Malaia says.
At the end of the class, students may remember the answer to the word problem, but they’ll also remember how they found the answer through multiplication.
“This way kids basically get into the driver’s seat,” Malaia says. “They feel especially good if they discover something, if they construct knowledge themselves.”
Teachers have been using this technique instinctively for years, she adds, and now the science is backing that up. “Curiosity really is one of the very intense and very basic impulses in humans. We should base education on this behavior.”