Curious about Curiosity? The Mnemonic Benefits of Curiosity and Its Educational Implications

While the myth of Pandora’s box warns us of the dangers of curiosity, more often than not curiosity is seen as a desirable trait to have. Curiosity can be defined as an intrinsic desire to explore the environment and gain new knowledge (Harlow et al., 1950; Litman, 2005). While there is disagreement over its exact definition, it is undeniable that curiosity plays a key role in our lives, especially in education and research. As early as infancy, children explore the world around them in a curious manner consistent with the desire to fill in knowledge gaps or reduce uncertainty (Kidd & Hayden, 2015). While especially prominent in childhood, curiosity continues to persist throughout the lifespan, impacting what we choose to focus on and later remember. Indeed, it has been shown that interesting or relevant information tends to be better remembered, even among older adults (Germain & Hess, 2007; McGillivray et al., 2015). The current article will describe how curiosity serves as a powerful intrinsic motivator and has mnemonic benefits. Implications of curiosity research for educational practice are discussed as well.

Mnemonic Benefits of Curiosity

To induce curiosity in a laboratory setting, researchers often use a trivia question paradigm, during which participants are asked to rate their initial curiosity level after reading trivia questions. After seeing the correct answers to all of the questions, participants are given a memory test. For instance, a participant may be shown the question “What reptile, according to ancient legend, was able to live in fire?” and then have to rate their curiosity to learn the answer on the scale of 1 to 10 (1 = not curious at all, 10 = extremely curious). The answer to the question, which is salamander, will then be shown and tested at a later time.

Using this paradigm, researchers had children ages 10 to 12 and adolescents ages 13 to 14 answer a variety of trivia questions expected to elicit different levels of curiosity. It was found that levels of high curiosity predicted better memory for trivia question answers on a surprise immediate recall test for both children and adolescents, even more so for adolescents when they found the answers interesting (Fandakova & Gruber, 2021). In other words, trivia questions that participants were more curious to learn the answer to were more likely to have their associated answers correctly recalled. Therefore, states of curiosity can be used to facilitate learning and later remembering of information, especially in young children and adolescents.

Similar findings have been consistently observed in younger and older adults. While older adults tend to experience memory impairments, they are able to remain selective when presented with competing, valuable information (Knowlton & Castel, 2022). Therefore, older adults may be able to perform at a level comparable to younger adults if they are able to direct their attentional resources towards information that they are more curious about or find more relevant. Using the trivia question paradigm, a study by McGillivray and colleagues (2015) revealed that curiosity and interest strongly predicted perceived learning and later memory for trivia question answers. In addition, there were no age-related differences in memory performance between younger adults (mean age = 20.3 years) and older adults (mean age = 72.9 years) when tested immediately after study and after a one week delay, indicating that the ability to remember interesting information remains intact in older adults.

The memory benefits of curiosity for both younger and older adults not only apply to trivia question answers, but also to information presented in temporal proximity (information shown near trivia questions). A modified version of the trivia question paradigm was used to study the effects of curiosity on incidental memory, or unintentional learning, of faces. In Galli et al. (2018), after studying a trivia question, participants were presented with an image of a face and asked to judge whether the person in the image would know the answer to the question. They then rated how curious they were to learn the answer before being shown it. Consistent with prior research, results revealed a higher recall of trivia answers for questions that participants were more curious about, regardless of age or baseline levels of curiosity (i.e., how naturally curious a person is). More interestingly, faces paired with questions that elicited high levels of curiosity were more likely to be recognized than those paired with low-curiosity questions, indicating that the benefits of curiosity extended to the learning of task-irrelevant information.

Intending to explore the underlying neural mechanisms of the effects of curiosity on memory, researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track participants’ brain activity while they answered trivia questions. They observed that levels of curiosity were correlated with activity in the caudate nucleus, a brain region associated with reward anticipation and learning, and in memory regions involved in long-term memory consolidation (Kang et al., 2009). A follow up study by Gruber et al. (2014) sought to identify whether curiosity modulates brain activity in regions reactive to extrinsic motivation, or motivation driven by external rewards such as money. Researchers found that curiosity-related learning benefits for both trivia answers and incidentally-encoded faces were driven by brain activity in the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with motivation and reward, and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in encoding and memory consolidation. Therefore, the neural basis of curiosity and its effects on memory can be explained by the activation of brain regions associated with reward-motivated learning and memory.

Curiosity in the Classroom

Moving away from the laboratory, some might wonder what the real-world applications of this research are, specifically how we can use curiosity in the classroom to promote effective learning and memory. When thinking about what defines a successful student, some may imagine a hard-working person with straight A’s and strong extracurriculars. What appears to be less appreciated is how curious a student is and what impact that has on their motivation and goals. As discussed, curiosity has beneficial effects on memory, but it is unclear how the findings translate to practice in the classroom. There are various techniques that educators can use to stimulate curiosity in the classroom, some of which are not difficult to implement.

Notably, educators can focus on asking questions that encourage students to think and hypothesize. Examples include asking students to make predictions and explain their reasoning. Furthermore, educators should delay giving students correct answers immediately after posing a question. According to the delay-of-feedback benefit, feedback is more effective when it is provided after a delay rather than immediately. In fact, it was found that delaying feedback of answers for high curiosity-inducing trivia questions by a few seconds led to better performance on an immediate recall test (Mullaney et al., 2014). It was reasoned that introducing a delay would lead participants to actively anticipate feedback and become curious, resulting in heightened levels of arousal or attention to the answer and consequently, better memory. Students should also be encouraged to ask questions during class, as it shows that they are engaged and curious.

With regards to course content, it has been observed that people tend to be curious about things that are not too easy or difficult, a finding in line with the Region of Proximal Learning (RPL) model. According to the RPL framework, optimal learning occurs when students are exposed to information that they perceive to be almost, but not completely known, analogous to the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (Metcalfe et al., 2020). People tend to be extremely curious and are willing to persist in studying the information until they have judged the information as successfully learned. In consideration of this, educators may want to design their lectures in a way to facilitate optimal levels of curiosity so that students find the content challenging but not impossible to grasp. It is important to note that since levels of expertise vary, it can be difficult to create content that is “almost known” for the majority of individuals. Nonetheless, the RPL framework may be worth considering when lesson planning.

Future Directions

Educators are often encouraged to stimulate curiosity in the classroom, but its benefits for learning have mostly been studied in the laboratory. While trivia questions are convenient to use when researching the effects of curiosity, the extent to which they have real-life applications is debatable. For instance, while interesting, it is unclear how knowing that frogs were once used by German meteorologists to predict air pressure changes would be helpful. Future research should explore how educationally-relevant material can be manipulated to promote curiosity and what steps educators can take to cultivate an environment where students feel comfortable exploring their interests.

As a society, we should focus on nurturing intellectual curiosity among learners of all ages. Whether that manifests itself as an educator asking thought-provoking questions or a student pursuing their different interests, it is evident that having a curious mind benefits all.


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