The Curious Brain

If you have ever spent any time with preschoolers, you know that they incessantly ask questions. "Why is that squirrel eating a nut? Where do you think it lives? Why are there nuts on that tree? Where are the other squirrels? Why? Where? How come?"

For us parents, these endless questions can be exasperating. At the end of a long day, "Because I said so!" is about all you can muster in response. However, stepping away from the tediousness of explaining a squirrel's complex relationship with the forest, we realize that curiosity is an essential ingredient in life. This intrinsic motivation to learn is certainly a core driver of achievement in the classroom.

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Inside the Curious Mind

A team of neuroscientists at the University of California-Davis have begun peering into the inner workings of the curious mind. Participants in their lab were asked to rank a list of trivia questions based on how curious they were to know the answer. Next, while in an MRI machine, they reviewed a selection of both the interesting and uninteresting questions along with their answers.

Not surprisingly, when participants reviewed questions that made them most curious, their brains' pleasure and reward systems lit up. In other words, curiosity made them feel good. Activity also increased in the hippocampus, which is central to the formation of memories. The activity in the hippocampus was born out by participants' performance on a "post-test" following the brain scan. They were more likely to remember the answers to quiz questions that they were curious about.

The most surprising part of this experiment was that curiosity seemed to help participants remember proximal but unrelated information as well. When participants were shown images of faces in between the questions and their answers, they were more likely to remember the expression on the face that followed an intriguing question (in addition to the answer to the question itself). Faces that followed uninteresting questions faded from memory.

It turns out that curiosity helps information stick. It is fuel for both learning and retention.

Your child's learning edge

Before we could glimpse the inner workings of the brain, George Loewenstein described curiosity as an "information gap" that produces a feeling of deprivation, a feeling that we are driven to fill. For young children, information gaps abound. Thus the incessant questioning of the squirrel, the nuts, the trees and on and on.

As our children grow up, however, information gaps persist. This is what I describe to my undergraduate students as their "learning edge," the space just beyond their competency (and comfort) level. While the incessant questioning of early childhood may fade, we would be wise to encourage our children to keep probing the far edges of their knowledge. We would be wise to encourage them to approach the world with curiosity and questions. Questions that as they grow get more broad, deep and complicated.

Students who are hungry for knowledge learn about and retain more than just the answers to their original questions.

  1. Model curiosity. Instead of showing off that you have all the answers, model that you are curious about the world too. Express wonder, ask questions big and small, and delight in investigating their answers.
  2. Encourage investigation, not just answers. It can be temping to simply answer all of your child's questions. It is fine to share knowledge with your child but don't forget to encourage them to develop their questions and explore them as well.
  3. Let your child's interests be your guide. You can't very well force your child to be intrigued by something. Instead, let them take the lead.
  4. Embed "boring" work inside an interesting framework. The lesson of the faces inside these experiments teaches us that even unrelated or "boring" information sticks with us when we are in a curious state. Take advantage of this and see if you can give information a more intriguing context.
  5. Tell a story. How is this story going to end? What happens to the central characters? Storytelling ignites the curious mind.