Importance of curiosity

From Imagination 6 months ago to Curiosity now.

After a hefty absence, I want to explore the role of curiosity in our cognitive lives. Defining curiosity is hard enough, let alone understanding it and its scope. But, there are some very interesting findings in neuroscience, in psychology and in educational research regarding the role of curiosity in our brains and minds.

The philosophy student in me lives on and first of all it is important to examine what I mean by curiosity. A quick definition search:

a strong desire to know or learn something (from Oxford)

desire to know: a) inquisitive interest in others’ concerns; b) interest leading to enquiry (from Merriam Webster)

Often inquisitiveness is given as a synonym:

having or showing an interest in learning things (Oxford)

given to examination or investigation (Merriam Webster).

Curiosity, then, is firmly linked to knowledge acquisition, to information, to learning. Does this quite capture what we mean by curious, though? For me, curiosity denotes a particular enthusiasm for knowing and learning, a wilful seeking: A ‘desire’ or an ‘interest’ in learning is missing this active, positive attitude to the information being sought.

Curiosity is a gift, a capacity of pleasure in knowing (Ruskin)

Ruskin understands the need to incorporate the positive affectivity of a curious mind set. There is great pleasure in satisfying curiosity, so much so that being in an actively curious state is also pleasurable because of the anticipation of satisfaction. So, allow me the liberty of customizing the definition.

Curiosity : An enthusiastic willing to understand or learn something

What do we know about curiosity and the brain?

When we are curious, our brains enter a “reward” state: activity is increased in brain regions that are associated with natural reward when in a self-reported curious mental state (Kang et al, 2009; Gruber, Gelman & Raganath, 2014). Activity in these areas has been associated with extrinsic rewards, via the dopaminergic system, which is a pathway through the brain which releases the chemical dopamine. The rush of dopamine release is a well-known mechanism by which we find external stimuli rewarding: chocolate, sex, drugs all stimulate dopamine release… and so does curiosity. Seeking information, willing to understand an unknown, makes use of these very same reward pathways in our brains, thus we can conclude that being in a state of curiosity is pleasurable, enjoyable and even desirable.

Not only is it enjoyable, it is also valuable. Studies have shown that inducing curiosity and then satisfying it leads to better memory of that information. For instance, if you show a blurred image of an object, then the clear image of it, the object is better remembered in later testing than if just the clear image is shown (Berlyne & Normore, 1972). More compelling, if in the gap between the piquing of curiosity and the sating of it you give unrelated information, both the curiosity-inducing information and the irrelevant information are better remembered. Researchers at the University of California conducted an experiment where participants rated how curious they were to know the answers to trivia question. Before seeing the answer to the trivia question, a random face was presented to participants as a ‘control image’. Replicating other studies, trivia questions participants were more curious about were better remembered better in a later test. Interestingly, when participants were given a surprise recall test of the faces those presented after high curiosity rated faces were better remembered than those presented after low-curiosity trivia questions. This result persisted to next-day testing (Gruber et al, 2014). This is quite an amazing finding. Somewhat counterintuitively, a state of curiosity helps you learn even when you are not curious about that specific information: Curiosity helps build lasting memories.

So how can we use curiosity?

Harnessing curiosity in the educational realm could be hugely beneficial. After all, isn’t the idealistic aim of education to foster a love and appreciation of knowledge? The British government, university admissions tutors, future employers, your parents, probably don’t care whether you’ve learnt the finer details of circle theorems, whether you have memorized Pythagoras’ theorem, whether you know how to find the answer to 2.33 by factorising (x + 2)3 where x = 0.3, but they do take a keen interest in your maths GCSE result. At the surface, maths GCSE demonstrates whether you have indeed learnt these things among many others. However, what the maths GCSE really demonstrates is whether you have been able to learn and apply these concepts in the first place, whether you have the discipline and stamina to acquire these mathematical skills, whether you can take a principle, a theory, a function, a rule and apply it to a previously unseen problem, because these skills tell the government, the university, the employer something more valuable about you. If education instils an enjoyment of the process of learning then achieving the results required by the government, universities, employers becomes easier – as soon as something is a chore, it is hard! – and also, the chance of you spending your life doing something you love becomes much greater.

Steiner schools (which I wrote about in my last blog post) promote a style of learning which is centred around following learner’s natural curiosity to guide lessons and learning. Rather than forcing a particular topic, lesson or curriculum on a child, the lesson in shaped around a child’s interests and particular concepts are taught through that lens. For instance, if a child comes to school one morning and only wants to talk about ants, instead of being met with times tables, with literacy, or with geography, instead they are taught about times tables using ants, the ant life-cycle or eco-system are taught, biology is taught using ants. A story is devised around ants. All these concepts are thus taught, but without destroying the child’s intrinsic curiosity in ants. In fact, not only is the curiosity preserved, it is harnessed to allow the teaching to be more salient and thus more effective. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Instead of arriving in school and being told “no, we’re not talking about that now” or “it’s not the time for that” or “focus on what we’re doing” and having curiosity extinguished and school associated with this snuffing of curiosity, school becomes a place of excitement, or pleasure, of satisfaction.

Of course, it is not so simple as that: a classroom of 30 children aren’t all curious about the same thing at the same time for this to be harnessed in a more formal lesson setting. But, lessons can be learnt from the neuroscience of curiosity. As I said above, once in a curious state even unrelated information is better learnt, better stored and better retrieved. Pique a child’s interest at the beginning of the lesson and the information contained therein will be more effectively learnt. Or, pique your own interest before learning something important to give yourself a better chance of remembering it in the future.

Much has been made lately of providing relevance of learning material to children. Maybe relevance is important only as it relates to curiosity. If you tell a child that maths is important when building bridges maybe what helps them learn is not that they can see the necessity of maths in the world, but rather because their curiosity has been stimulated: What maths is used? What would happen if you didn’t? I wonder how many cars can be on the Golden Gate at once before it would collapse? Etc. If a child finds the anticipation of these questions enjoyable (because s/he is curious), then s/he will engage with the lesson because of this. Imagine how wonderful classrooms full of curious, engaged, happy, actively learning children could be.

Does it matter whether it is curiosity of relevance that causes the improved outcome in learning? Well, it matters because inducing curiosity is less restrictive than demonstrating relevance; because relevance-to-the-world is not relevance-to-me; because hijacking an existing reward pathway for the purposes of learning just seems so much more powerful than appealing to rational reasons. Afterall, it’s not hard to imagine a child saying “well, I’m never going to be a builder, an engineer, a scientist, etc. I’m going to be driver, an athlete, a beautician, etc. so I don’t need to know maths”. However, if you induce their curiosity about anything and then teach them trigonometry, maybe they’ll remember it better.

 Interesting reading

Berlyne, DE & Normore, LF, 1972, Effects of Prior Uncertainty on Incidental Free Recall, Journal of Experimental Psychology 96(1): 43-48

Gruber, MJ, Gelman, BD, & Raganath, C, 2014, States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit, Neuron 84(2): 486-496

Kang, MJ, Hsu, M, Krajbich, IM, Loewenstein, G, McClure, SM, Wang, JT, Camerer, CF, 2009, The wick in the candle of learning: epistemic curiosity activates reward circuitry and enhances memory, Psychol Sci 20(8): 963 – 973

Importance of curiosity

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