Washington: Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, a new study suggests.
Researchers also found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward.
"Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation - curiosity - affects memory. These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings," said lead author Dr Matthias Gruber, of the University of California at Davis.
For the study, participants rated their curiosity to learn the answers to a series of trivia questions.
When they were later presented with a selected trivia question, there was a 14 second delay before the answer was provided, during which time the participants were shown a picture of a neutral, unrelated face.
Afterwards, participants performed a surprise recognition memory test for the faces that were presented, followed by a memory test for the answers to the trivia questions. During certain parts of the study, participants had their brains scanned via functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The study found that once their curiosity was aroused, people showed better learning of entirely unrelated information (face recognition) that they encountered but were not necessarily curious about.
People were also better able to retain the information learned during a curious state across a 24-hour delay.
"Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it," said Gruber.
The researchers also found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward.
"We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation," said Gruber.
This reward circuit relies on dopamine, a chemical messenger that relays messages between neurons.
The team also discovered that when curiosity motivated learning, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for forming new memories, as well as increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit.
"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," said principal investigator Dr Charan Ranganath, also of UC Davis.
The study is published in the Cell Press journal Neuron.