Katie Black Photography—Getty Images/Flickr RF
By Martha C. White
October 31, 2014

Facing the unpleasant task of having to commit some dull facts or figures to memory? Now you don’t have to be that person fumbling for their notes or clicking frantically through slides during an important presentation. To kick your ability to recall information into overdrive, try piquing your curiosity, a new study suggests.

People are better at learning and remembering information they’re genuinely interested in, but researchers have discovered that a state of curiosity has a kind of halo effect on other, incidental or unrelated information we’re exposed to at the same time.

An NPR article points out this principle is useful for teachers who want to engage students by framing a lesson as a story or riddle, but as it turns out, the idea also might benefit grown-ups in the workforce.

“I think there are some useful ideas that can come out of our study with regard to adult learning,” says Charan Ranganath, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and one of the study’s authors, although he does caution that this is speculative.

Ranganath and his co-authors presented experiment subjects with both interesting and incidental information, and watched how these people processed it using MRIs. They found that a state of curiosity stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers.

What’s so special about curiosity that it has such a powerful effect? Ranganath suggests it’s an evolutionary response. “We are starting to think that the feeling of curiosity reflects a natural drive to reduce uncertainty in your understanding of the world,” he says. “So when you know something about a topic, but then find there is a gaping hole in your knowledge, you will feel the itch to get to the bottom of it,” he says.

Ranganath and his colleagues theorize this might be why we’re more receptive to remembering ancillary details unrelated to the object of our curiosity. “Our work suggests that the motivational state of high curiosity can help you more effectively retain what you learn,” he says.

If you’re faced with a memory task that doesn’t grab your attention, Ranganath suggests tricking your brain into engaging with the information by pinpointing a gap in your knowledge about a topic that interests you, then investigating it, before tackling the chore at hand. “If you have to learn something, it is important to stimulate your curiosity,” he says.

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