I’ve become obsessed with the concept of curiosity in the past couple of years (if you’ve followed along with my Puzzlements mailer you’re well aware of this!). It’s such a powerful component of learning, yet, as a teacher, I knew nothing about curiosity!. There’s lots of interesting research and resources out there and I’d like to try to break down what I’ve learned so far.
I had no idea how to pique my students’ curiosity and prime their brains for learning.
Curiosity is Powerful!
Perhaps it goes without saying, but curiosity is powerful. It grabs hold of us and doesn’t let go. Once you start wondering about something, you simply must know the answer! And it is thoroughly unsatisfying to be left hanging.
You know when you’ve captured my class’ curiosity: they won’t leave for recess, lunch, or the end of the day. I would have to shoo them out!
So why are we so drawn in by curiosity? What even is it?
Curiosity is all about anticipation. Our brains are on the edge of their seats, eagerly waiting for a tantalizing piece of information. As this study uncovered, when we become curious, our brains begin releasing dopamine.
You’ve probably heard of dopamine! Perhaps you know that it’s a “pleasure chemical”. But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Dopamine is all about the anticipation of reward, not the reward itself.
You’ve experienced the release of dopamine and the pleasure of anticipation when you’ve:
- enjoyed planning a vacation (maybe more than the vacation itself!)
- felt the excitement of getting to the front of a line for a ride at an amusement park
- saw your waiter walking towards you with your delicious meal (“Oh, our food is coming!”)
So this is an essential part of learning: building anticipation is powerful! It’s directly connected to our brain’s natural reward system. E. Paul Torrance tells us to “heighten anticipation” in step one of the Torrence Incubation Model of Creative Teaching and Learning.
Now, consider all of the ways teachers are pressured to hurry up rather than slow down and build anticipation by people who are not themselves teachers! Yuck.
Curiosity Improves Learning
So here’s the real power of creating this dopamine-inducing anticipation. In that same study, the researchers found that memory is improved when our brains are in a state of anticipation.
But not just about the information the brain is anticipating. Our brain remembers everything better when it’s soaking in dopamine.
To sum it up when we’re in a state of curiosity, we remember everything better – not just the specific thing we’re curious about.
This is related to the hippocampus activating as part of the dopamine experience. The hippocampus is a part of the brain related to storing long-term memory. When we get dopamine flowing, we engage the hippocampus, and we form long-term memories.
Think back to your own moments of anticipation: waiting for a movie, planning a vacation, researching a purchase, seeing the waiter bring your special meal, and so on. You probably have some strong memories of those moments. Your anticipation released dopamine, which kickstarted the hippocampus, which led to longer-lasting memories.
Curiosity makes memories.
Why didn’t I know about this as a teacher?
To sum it up:
- When we become curious, we are anticipating learning information.
- Our brain releases dopamine, a pleasurable chemical related to the anticipation of a reward (in this case information).
- Simply being in this curious state activates the hippocampus, enhancing memory.
- We remember things better when we are in this state, even things we weren’t actually curious about.