Curiosity, TV Serials, and the Brain

Curiosity may have killed the cat, as the English proverb states, but on another level it also increases people’s patience to find an answer, while paradoxically, making them eager to find it. The findings by neuroscientists at Duke University in the United States, also complements another recent study, this time by researchers in the Netherlands, who have for the first time, identified the brain region responsible for curiosity.

The Duke research might help both teachers and students as it describes an angle to curiosity that instead of seeking immediate answers to a question or challenge, encourages students to stay engaged with the topic they are learning. We see this technique employed quite effectively in television serials, where each episode ends leaving viewers wondering what is going to happen next. But despite this urge to find what happens next, most viewers wait patiently for the next episode rather than seek the answer from ‘spoilers’ available online.

Curiosity has been critical in the evolution of the human race, as it is one of the most important factors that led people to go exploring new places, investigating the unknown, or to make breakthrough discoveries in various spheres of life. The new research paper, which appeared in mid-October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, found that when people were more curious, they were actually more willing to wait.

In the paper, the researchers said they were ‘curious’ to know if higher curiosity would push people to seek, or to avoid, getting an immediate ‘spoiler’. For their study the team used a digital paintbrush and made a series of 30-second animated line drawing videos that eventually ended up as something highly recognizable, like a sandwich or a dog.
More than 2,000 adults then watched these short line-drawing videos online. Participants in the study were asked along the way how curious they were, how they felt, and to guess what the drawing would become. Viewers also had a ‘spoiler’ button to skip ahead to see the final drawing.

Researchers were surprised to find that when people were curious, they withheld from hitting the ‘spoiler’ button and kept watching the drawings unfold. It was when people were less curious that they tended to opt for an instant answer. Curiosity was found to not just motivate getting answers, it also increased the value of the discovery journey. IN addition, the study found that curiosity increased at different stages of watching the videos — higher curiosity during moments where it seemed like the drawing could turn into something they could identify, and also when participants were starting to get really close to the answer.

Curiosity was also found to stir up people’s feeling of joy, which could explain why the participants kept watching the line drawing video even when they could just hit a button to get the answer right away. This could also explain, for example, why knowing the end of a new TV series can remove the enjoyment of watching the plot unravel.

The researchers suggested that aside from watching TV shows, stoking curiosity might also help enhance motivation in the classroom to potentially improve learning. A recent study found that increasing curiosity can enhance memory by ‘readying’ the brain for new information, an attribute valuable for young learners. This latest finding highlights that curiosity can also bolster persistence throughout a learning journey, which is often needed for deep understanding. By understanding what sparks curiosity, especially how it arises from our own ideas, we can find more ways to cultivate it and benefit from the learning it promotes.

On an unrelated note, but still focused on curiosity, scientists have narrowed in on the brain mechanism behind curiosity. Curiosity is a highly valued attribute in human evolution as well as essential and intrinsic for survival of species. It is the motivational drive that urges exploration and investigation of the unknown, and find solutions to challenges or to make new discoveries.

Until recently, the brain mechanisms underlying curiosity and novelty seeking behavior were unclear. However, researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience have now discovered a new brain circuit underlying curiosity and the desire to seek novel experiences. Curiosity, hunger, and appetitive aggression — which is the positive feeling associated with the perpetration of violent behavior — drive three different goal-directed behaviors: novelty seeking, food eating and hunting, all of which are essential to survival of species. In animals these three behaviors are composed of similar reactions, which has made it challenging to study novelty seeking in animals and to distinguish it from eating and hunting.

Scientists have largely focused their research into motivational behavior by studying the brain mechanism of mice, as current technological limitations prevent studying similar brain mechanisms in humans. For their study, the researchers examined mice in an experimental battery of new and familiar objects and social interaction.

By increasing brain activity in a specific brain region, known as the Zona Incerta, interaction with novel objects and similar species increased compared to familiar objects and food. When the cells in this region were inactivated, depth and duration of investigation was found to decrease. Moreover, the researchers found that specific neurons were more active during deep investigation compared to during shallow investigation.

Using several innovative techniques, a whole path of multiple brain regions was uncovered that converts curiosity into action in mice. The finding could help explain how curiosity sometimes wins over the urge for security, and why some individuals are more curious than others.

The researchers said they still know little about this area in humans, because it is located deep within the brain and it is difficult to measure activity with brain scans. They hoped that development of new techniques may lead to more clarity in the future about this area in the human brain.

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