Seen in the scanner: curiosity stimulates the memory

Curiosity makes people stressed. Satisfying the curiosity works as a reward and also stimulates the memory. Researchers at the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition have provided new evidence for a classical theory about human curiosity using functional MRI scans. The researchers have published an article on the subject in 'Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience'.

Extensive study

Sander Nieuwenhuis

Sander Nieuwenhuis

Curiosity is one of the most basic biological urges of people and animals. It is an important stimulus for learning and discovering new things. Most people experience it as unpleasant if they have difficulty recognising an image, for example because it is only partly visible. The classical theory on this phenomenon was devised by Daniel Berlyne (1966, Science). Removing the curiosity acts as a reward. Moreover, it also means that people remember the image better. This is the first time that the effects of curiosity in the human brain have been studied so extensively.


Unclear images arouse curiosity

Marieke Jepma, Sander Nieuwenhuis and their Leiden colleagues showed test candidates in an MRI scanner a number of images, half of which were so unclear that they were unrecognisable; see illustration, step 1.  These blurred images stimulated greater activity in brain areas that are also active during unpleasant events or circumstances, such as pain, loss, uncertainty or when we make mistakes.

After being shown a number of blurred images, the test candidates were shown the same images, but this time in sharp focus; see illustration, step 2. The candidates' curiosity was stilled, such that the brain areas that were active were those that are typical for reward. This activity this time was much greater than when the test candidate's curiosity was stilled, having been shown a blurred image that was subsequently followed by a random, sharply focused image.   


The more curious you are, the better your memory

Apart from the reward aspect, stilling the curiosity led to activity in the hippocampus, the brain area where memories are initially stored. In a later memory test, it was demonstrated that test candidates remembered best those images about which they had been most curious.

Better learning performance

The researchers write that their findings may be important for how teaching programmes and advertising campaigns are designed. Arousing the curiosity seems to lead to better storage of the data in question. You could apply this theory by having pupils guess the meaning of foreign words before presenting them with a translation of the words.  

Jepma, M., Verdonschot, R.G., van Steenbergen, H., Rombouts, S.A., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2012).
Neural mechanisms underlying the induction and relief of perceptual curiosity.
Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience

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‘The brain itself is multidisciplinary, and should therefore be studied as such’
Brain function and dysfunction over the lifespan


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Brain and cognition

(10 February 2012)

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Last Modified: 26-03-2012