What happens when your curiosity has been piqued? That’s what one study, published in Neuron, aimed to find out.

Researchers asked 19 participants to review more than 100 questions. Each question was rated on how curious it made the participant. Then, the participants revisited 112 of the questions. Half of the questions were ones the participants were strongly curious about, the other half were those they found not interesting. The participants were then placed inside an MRI machine to measure brain activity.

While their brains were being scanned, the 19 participants would view a question then wait 14 seconds and view a photograph of a person’s face unrelated to the question before seeing the answer.

The study had three major findings.

As expected, a curious person is better at learning information on the subject they are curious about. What surprised researchers though, was that the participants could also retain unrelated information, such as the face. Plus, participants were able to retain information better not just in the near-term, but across 24 hours.

When a person’s curiosity has been piqued, the part of the brain associated with reward sees increased activity. “We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation,” says lead author Dr. Matthias Gruber.

Researchers also found an increase in activity in the hippocampus when the participant was curious. “So curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance,” adds principal investigator Dr. Charan Ranganath.

These findings confirm what many of us have experienced before. Like that awesome Physics teacher from high school who made class fun. Curiosity fuels learning. Getting that to work for Calculus is the real challenge.

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