After his daugther voices her disgust with astronomy, one father dives into the reserach behind curiosity to help spark some interest of distant stars. Curiosity isn’t exclusive to mankind, and it may have been around even longer than our distant ancestors, but it is only recently that neuroscientists have attempted to understand how it works and how it contributes to learning.
At the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California at Davis psychologist Matthias Gruber studies how the brain files long-term memories of events. His recent study with researchers Bernar Gelman and Charan Ranganath — published in Neuron — found that curiosity changes the brain in ways that enhance learning.
Curiosity isn’t just for the young, but is helpful in maintaining our intelligence and our health throughout our lives. A study in JAMA found a link between constant stimulation of the mind and lowered risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Basically, when the brain’s curiosity was triggered, thereby releasing dopamine, the person later could remember “incidental information.” In other words, participants didn’t just remember more about the topics they were curious about, but they remembered more information about unrelated topics when their brain had recently experienced a spike in curiosity.
When asked if dopamine and curiosity have implications for education, Gruber says he assumes that good teachers are already doing it instinctively. “If they turn on the ‘wanting system’ in their classrooms, the hippocampus works better,” he explains, referring the part of the brain associated with long-term memory storage. “If teachers find a way to inspire each student by telling them something every student wants to know, they will all remember the incidental information. Once the ‘wanting system’ is turned on, it remembers everything.”
Teachers need to find a little detail in the subject they are teaching that fascinates and sparks the students interest. Parents can do this as well. Think back to what made you interested in a subject, and help stimulate curiosity in your kids.
Kathy Koch, author of How Am I Smart? A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligence echoes this view: “Too many children tell me they stop asking questions because parents and teachers respond too often with statements like these: ‘You don’t need to know that.’ ‘Look it up yourself.’ ‘That’s not important.’ … Not allowing children to ask questions and not taking their questions seriously are easy ways we shut down the logic-smart intelligence.”