I’ve become obsessed with the concept of curiosity in the past couple 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 it. 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.
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.
So why are we so drawn in by curiosity? What even is it?
Matthias Gruber from the UC Davis explains his curiosity research in this video, but he’s not the greatest of presenters, so let me sum up the important parts:
- They put a participant into a brain imaging scanner
- They induced curiosity by asking a question the participant was interested in (“Which Beatles song was on the top of the charts for the longest?”)
- They waited 14 seconds while scanning the participant’s brain
- Then revealed the answer (“Hey Jude”)
The findings: when the participants became curious, the areas of the brain that anticipate rewards lit up. These areas are related to dopamine and what Gruber calls the “wanting system.”
Dopamine and Curiosity
You’ve probably heard of dopamine. Perhaps 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. In this experiment, it’s released as the participant anticipates learning new information, not when the information is actually given.
You’ve experienced the pleasure of anticipation when you’ve:
- enjoyed planning a vacation or outing
- felt the excitement of standing in line for a ride or a movie
- saw your waiter walking towards you with that delicious meal you maybe shouldn’t have ordered
- pulled out your phone to see if there was anything new on Instagram (even though you looked five
- researched that new item you want to buy
This is essential understanding for learning: building anticipation is powerful! E. Paul Torrance tells us to “heighten anticipation” in step one of the Torrence Incubation Model of Creative Teaching and Learning. Curiosity cannot be rushed, but the payoff is worth it.
Curiosity Improves Learning
So here’s the real power of creating this dopamine-inducing anticipation.
Gruber’s team added random information in the middle of their curiosity study:
- As before, the researchers triggered curiosity in some participants. I’ll call these the “curious people.”
- This time, during the 14 seconds, they showed a random face to all participants (both curious and uncurious).
- Then, 24 hours later, the curious people could remember the random faces better than the uncurious people.
Let’s be clear: these curious people were NOT curious about the faces. They just happened to be in a state of curiosity and it led to improved learning.
Gruber explains that 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 those moments of strong 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 was releasing dopamine, which kickstarted the hippocampus into gear.
So, to wrap up our first round of exploring curiosity:
- 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.
Closing Question: How many times a day are your students in a curious state, eagerly anticipating information?
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