More about curiosity and learning

More interesting research about curiosity: yet another study of college students, these from Caltech, gives a look at what happens in the brain in response to trivia questions.   (Thanks to Jonah Lehrer for drawing attention to this study.) In the study, students were scanned using fMRI as they guessed the answer to each of 40 trivia questions, then they ranked their curiosity about the correct answer, and then they were shown the correct answer.  In a follow-up, the students were tested on their memory of the new information (the answers to questions they got wrong).

The fMRI showed activity in the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri (I have no idea what that last one is or where it lives).  But according to the researchers, this means that curiosity is associated with the dopamine reward pathway, the same pathways activated in our search for other rewards—food, sex, etc.  The study also established that the individuals’ level of curiosity peaked when they had a small amount of knowledge—in other words, when we know a little about a topic, we tend to be more curious than when we know nothing, or when we know a lot.

Now, this applies to the kind of curiosity that is about information, specifically about new information.  It can’t necessarily be applied to “visual stimuli, semantic narratives like page-turner novels, social information like gossip, and ‘morbid curiosity’” as the report says.

It’s interesting that most of us are most curious when we know a little about a subject.  It suggests a great way to elicit interest in a subject—so important if you are teaching.  Proffer a factoid, and reel them in to a more detailed discussion.  But the result that I think has the most powerful insight into learning is this:  “When the answer was revealed, activations were much stronger in response to incorrect than correct answers, in areas linked to learning and memory.”

In other words, guessing at an answer and getting it wrong before finding out the right answer leads to a stronger memory of the right answer—in other words, to learning. This is a good argument for thinking through a problem before turning to Google—we’ll remember the answer better if we work our way to a wrong answer before finding the right one.

Hey, we should be rewarding our kids—and ourselves—for finding the wrong answers first, not the right ones!

I occasionally see people for test anxiety and concentration issues, or study skills.  For many, these issues are associated with a perfectionist need to avoid mistakes. After reading this research paper, I’m going to include suggestions for these clients to value the process of making mistakes in their studies, and to have confidence in their mistakes as building blocks to learning.  If you’re not making mistakes, chances are you’re not learning!

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