Did curiosity really kill the cat? I’m sure you’ve heard this expression before, but what is curiosity and how does it work? Albert Einstein once said:

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

What exactly goes on in our brains when something piques our attention?

A study which was published in Neuron magazine suggested that as we become curious, our brain’s chemistry changes and in turn, helps us to retain information and increases our learning.

What Happens to Our Brains on Curiosity?

The study conducted by Ranganath, a psychologist at the University of California found that the human brain retains information better if we we’re curious about it.

What Ranganath did was ask 19 volunteers to review over 100 trivia questions such as “What does the term ‘dinosaur’ actually mean?” and “What Beatles single lasted longest on the charts, at 19 weeks?”. Next, participants were asked to give the questions a rating on a scale of how curious they were about the actual answer.

Interestingly, they found that when monitoring their brain activity using an MRI machine, the area of the brain that regulates pleasure and reward lit up when the participant’s curiosity was piqued. Even more cool was the increased activity in the hippocampus which is the area that is involved in the creation of memories.

Therefore, the area of the brain that energizes people to go out and seek rewards is the same when we are curious and it’s when this circuit is activated is when our brains release a chemical called dopamine which gives us a natural high. The dopamine appears to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning.

Tweetable: Curiosity is like a mental itch and the only way to scratch it is to seek out new knowledgeclick-to-tweet

Boring Stuff? No Problem- Just Get Curious!

An interesting aspect in Ranganath’s study was that all throughout the experiment, the researchers flashed photos of random faces without giving any explanation. It was found that those whose curiosity was already piqued were the participants that remembered the faces the best.

The researchers were surprised to learn that it was the curious brains that were better at the topic at hand and even boring information!

Bonus: Stop Being Boring

What We Still Don’t Know

Why are some people more naturally curious than others? Scientists are researching lots of factors including stress, aging and certain drugs that affect the dopamine processing in the brain.

Curiosity is like a mental itch and the only way to scratch it is to seek out new knowledge. This mental itch is an impulse that is shared by humans and it is deemed an important skill that can help make better predictions about what will happen in our lives. However, we all know what happened to Pandora when she opened the box!


About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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