Monday, April 11, 2011

The Hook, Curiosity, and the Brain

If you're curious, your pupils dilate and reward centers in the caudate activate. If you try to answer a question and then find out it's wrong, then memory areas like the paraphippocampal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus rev up even more as your brain makes way for new learning to take place.

From Cal Tech research Colin Camerer:

"A theory that guides our research holds that curiosity arises from an incongruity
or ‘information gap’—a discrepancy between what one knows and what one wants to
know (2). The hypothesis is that the aspired or desired level of knowledge increases
sharply with a small increase in knowledge, so that the gap between this desired level and
the actual knowledge grows. When one is sufficiently knowledgeable, however, the gap
shrinks and curiosity falls. If curiosity is like a hunger for knowledge, then the decrease
in curiosity from knowing a lot is like a form of information satiety."

When study subjects were interested in a question, their caudates (reward) and prefrontal cortices became activated as the brain prepared for more information to be coming their way.

If they found they had given an incorrect answer,  the curiosity effect seemed even stronger, and intensity of curiosity predicted better memory for the answer when tested later.

There's a reason for caring about 'hooking' students into lessons, piquing curiosity, and even getting them to speculate about answers before they know whether something's right or wrong. It's win-win. If students answer correctly, great - they know the correct answer. If they answer incorrectly, then they'll remember the take home point even better than if they hadn't answered at all. A pearl.

This study reminded us of Enrico Fermi, a very great teacher (trained many Nobel prize winners, originator of Fermi questions etc.).For his classes at the University of Chicago, Fermi apparently often opened with questions that students had to try and answer. If they could give an adequate explanation, they had to pay another student money (early version of game-based learning)! No wonder his lectures were so memorable throughout the year and are still recalled today.

Hunger for Knowledge: The Neural Correlates of Curiosity
Curiosity and the Creative Drive
Curiosity and the Mind
Enrico Fermi, A Great Teacher

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