Do we live in a holographic universe? How green is your coffee? And could drinking too much water actually kill you?
Before you click those links you might consider how your knowledge-hungry brain is preparing for the answers. A new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that when our curiosity is piqued, changes in the brain ready us to learn not only about the subject at hand, but incidental information, too.
Neuroscientist Charan Ranganath and his fellow researchers asked 19 participants to review more than 100 questions, rating each in terms of how curious they were about the answer. Next, each subject revisited 112 of the questions - half of which strongly intrigued them whereas the rest they found uninteresting - while the researchers scanned their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
During the scanning session participants would view a question then wait 14 seconds and view a photograph of a face totally unrelated to the trivia before seeing the answer. Afterward the researchers tested participants to see how well they could recall and retain both the trivia answers and the faces they had seen.
Ranganath and his colleagues discovered that greater interest in a question would predict not only better memory for the answer but also for the unrelated face that had preceded it
. A follow-up test one day later found the same results - people could better remember a face if it had been preceded by an intriguing question. Somehow curiosity could prepare the brain for learning and long-term memory more broadly
The findings are somewhat reminiscent of the work of U.C. Irvine neuroscientist James McGaugh, who has found that emotional arousal can bolster certain memories. But, as the researchers reveal in the October 2 Neuron
, curiosity involves very different pathways.