Research shows curiosity makes your brain happy and can cure bias. As if that isn’t a good enough reason to stay curious, scientists have come up with another benefit: curiosity improves memory! The more curious you are about something, the easier it is to remember what you learn about it. In fact, you’ll be able to better remember incidental information that you learn along the way, even if it isn’t directly related to the thing you were originally interested in. Not a bad deal.
A 2014 study published in the journal Neuron showed that when people were curious about a subject, they learned and remembered more about it than other subjects. Researchers from the University of California, Davis recruited 19 volunteers to read more than 100 trivia questions from a variety of topics, such as “What does the term ‘dinosaur’ actually mean?” and “What Beatles single lasted longest on the charts, at 19 weeks?” (The answers, by the way, are “terrible lizard” and “Hey, Jude”). Instead of trying to answer the questions, though, the volunteers just had to rate how curious they were about the answer.
Next, the researchers monitored the volunteers’ brain activity in an fMRI machine while they learned the answers to the questions. The results? When people were curious about the answers, they better remembered them 24 hours later. But that’s not all: with no explanation, a random face flashed on the screen before the volunteers saw the answer. Even though those faces had nothing to do with the questions, the volunteers were better able to remember the faces they saw before learning the answers to the questions that piqued their curiosity. The lesson: curiosity can help you learn incidental information, even when that information doesn’t make you curious.
Remembering unrelated information has big implications for treating certain brain conditions. “In patients with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, carrying out engaging tasks can help people remember things that are important, and also encourage new learning,” Dr. Amy Reichelt, psychology research fellow at University of New South Wales, told The Conversation. Stimulating curiosity in an educational setting could also help motivate children who are struggling to learn.
Curiosity Thrilled The Cat
Why would curiosity have such an effect? The researchers found that when people were feeling curious, there was a higher activity in the brain’s reward area, which thrives on dopamine. “Dopamine reinforces the connections between the nucleus accumbens and the areas of the brain related to memory, like the hippocampus and the amygdala,” CogniFit’s Cristina Nafria told Curiosity. “In fact, it’s been proven that learning something with an emotional component lasts longer than something that you may not be as emotionally invested in.” That’s why a school history class might not have left a mark, but a narrative-centered nonfiction book or podcast about a historical event can leave important details about it fresh in your mind.
Due to the nature of curiosity, those dopamine boosts can be a double-edged sword. Neuroscientist Marieke Jepma explained to Scientific American why curiosity can be an unpleasant experience, using a detective novel as an example: “Being uncertain about the identity of the murderer may be a pleasant reward-anticipating feeling when you know this will be revealed,” she said. “But this will turn into frustration if the last chapter is missing.” Like scratching an itch, curiosity can feel good when it’s satisfied, but annoying when it isn’t. (Thus why the little-known second half of “Curiosity killed the cat” is “but satisfaction brought it back.”)
So how can you stay curious? “Question-asking, I think, is right at the basis of everything because scientific inquiry about the world around us and artistic inquiry about the world around us are … the same thing. It’s curiosity, and that starts with asking questions,” Anna Starkey of the Bristol, UK interactive science center We the Curious told us on the Curiosity Podcast. “No one got anywhere by pretending that you knew everything.”