Curiosity–it’s not just a trivial pursuit

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but new research shows it can help keep your brain cells alive. In fact, researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that men and women showed improved memory when learning information about which they were naturally curious.

Curiosity appears to put the brain in a special, heightened state that allows it to learn and retain information. You absorb both what you are trying to learn as well as any incidental information you come across at the time.

How is this kind of research done? (Curious?)

At the study’s outset, each participant rated their own curiosity level to learn about different topics.

Next, researchers presented the participants with trivia questions about these topics. There was 14-second delay before the participants learned the answer. During that delay, participants saw a picture of a neutral, unrelated face. (Perhaps that of Alex Trebek from Jeopardy or para-psychologist Peter Venkman/Bill Murray from Ghostbusters?)

After the trivia session, the participants took a memory test to see how well they recalled the answers to the actual trivia questions. Turns out, they recalled significantly more answers–71 percent more–from the high-curiosity topics compared to low-curiosity topics.

The researchers also gave participants a surprise memory test for the faces presented during the earlier anticipatory interval.

Here again, the participants had better “incidental learning” and recalled more faces when first presented with a high-curiosity question compared to a low-curiosity question.

During certain parts of the study, the researchers also took functional MRIs of the participants to identify areas of the brain that were activated during these states of high curiosity.

They found increased activity in the region of the brain called the hippocampus during curiosity-motivated learning. The hippocampus is the region required for the formation of new memories. They also found increased interaction between the hippocampus and the so-called “reward” circuits of the brain.

Putting it all together, curiosity appears to recruit the brain’s reward system. And interactions among the reward circuits and the hippocampus are more likely to facilitate learning and retention of information. Even if some of that information isn’t particularly interesting. In other words, we’re more likely to remember positive experiences and the trivial detail that went along with them.

This finding perhaps explains why childhood memories stick with you in vivid detail decades after the event took place. Childhood is the time of life when curiosity abounds and is unrestrained. And many childhood memories are among the fondest for most people. (In which case, we can truly say, like Bob Hope, “thanks for the memories.”)

Unfortunately, the researchers did not discuss the study’s implications for cognitive function as we age.

As you may know, men and women with age-related dementia have trouble developing new memories by the hippocampus. But they often retain older memories. So, lifelong curiosity may be one way to help prevent age-related memory decline.

Reading new material on a daily basis is one good way to stay curious and keep learning. There is also evidence that nourishing the brain with B vitamins, vitamins D and E, and herbal remedies such as berberine can help with cognitive function and memory.

Keeping the brain active and staying curious about the world is not just a “trivial pursuit.” As Alice in Wonderland said, our modern world just keeps getting “curiouser and curiouser.” But maybe that’s a good thing for our brains. And if you live long enough, you will probably live to see just about everything…and remember it too.


  1. “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit,” Neuron, October 2, 2014, published on-line