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Curiosity Can Alter Human Brains

Update Date: Oct 02, 2014 06:31 PM EDT

Curiosity can change a person's brain structure, according to a new study.

Scientists said the latest study could provide insight into how curiosity makes learning and memorizing easier. They believe the findings could help boost cognition in both healthy people and patients with neurological problems.

"Our findings potentially have far-reaching implications for the public because they reveal insights into how a form of intrinsic motivation-curiosity-affects memory. These findings suggest ways to enhance learning in the classroom and other settings," lead author Dr. Matthias Gruber, of University of California at Davis, said in a news release.

Participants were asked to rate their curiosity to learn the answers to a few trivia questions. Later, they were shown a specific trivia question for 14 seconds before the answer was provided and a photograph of a neutral, unrelated face.

In the second part of the study, participant performed a surprise recognition memory test for the faces that were shown, and a memory test for the answers to the trivia questions.  Researchers said that the brains of participants were scanned via fMRI during certain parts of the study.

Researchers said that study revealed three main points.

First, people were better at learning when the topic piques their interest. Furthermore, researchers found that curiosity also enhanced learning of entirely unrelated information like the face recognition task.

"Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it," Gruber said in a news release.

The second finding showed that the brain circuit associated with reward exhibited increased activity.

"We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the very same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation," Gruber explained.

The last major finding revealed increased activity in the hippocampus, which is important for forming new memories, and increased communication between the hippocampus and reward circuit.

"So curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance," principal investigator Dr. Charan Ranganath of the University of California at Davis concluded.

The findings are published Oct. 2 in the journal Neuron

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