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Curiosity Makes Your Brain Happy

The Backstory

When you're very curious about a topic, that curiosity affects the chemistry of your brain. It prompts the release of dopamine, activates the reward system, and ups your motivation to learn. Not only that, but it increases your capacity to learn, too. A 2014 study found that curiosity primed subjects' brains to both enjoy and remember learning information. The improved memory even applied to information that wasn't relevant-simply by studying a topic they were interested in, participants could more easily remember a random face that was shown during the learning process.

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Expert Perspective

This is such an important topic, we needed to bring in an expert on curiosity and how the brain works. Check it out!

Cristina Nafria
Specialist in Neuropsychology, CogniFit
What is dopamine and why do we have it?

Dopamine tends to get a bad wrap. Yes, it is technically what makes us addicted to tobacco, alcohol, drugs, etc., but it is actually really important for us and we release this hormone/neurotransmitter throughout the day. It was traditionally thought to be related to the pleasure and reward systems in the brain, but it has recently been argued that it is actually associated with our anticipatory desire and motivation, not with actual felt pleasure. For example, you release dopamine when you see a warm, recently made chocolate cake, and not actually after you have already tasted it. Dopamine is important in a few different functions. Not only is it in charge of our pleasant feelings, but it is also a key player in coordination, decision making, learning and memory regulation, and is very important in motivation and curiosity.

How exactly does dopamine help us remember information?

Dopamine reinforces the connections between the nucleus accumbens and the areas of the brain related to memory, like the hippocampus and the amygdala. In fact, it's been proven that learning something with an emotional component lasts longer than something that you may not be as emotionally invested in. This emotional component can be positive or negative, and there are a ton of examples of when it is beneficial for us. For example, in elementary school when you are learning how to subtract, you are more likely do have more fun (and have a positive experience) if you use candies to count, rather than your fingers.

What happens if we have too much or not enough dopamine?

When we are addicted to something, we have an excess of dopamine. When we smoke, drink, or take other drugs, our dopamine reward circuits are activated. You also see higher dopamine levels in people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. With too little dopamine, we may go through states of anhedionia, or when you don't feel pleasure by doing pleasurable things. We may feel lazy, bored, depressed, or even anxious. Depression, social phobias, ADHD, and Parkinson's disease are all characterized by low levels of dopamine.

When we release dopamine, is the pleasure that we feel real?

My opinion is that when the brain releases dopamine in response to natural stimuli, the happiness that is associated with it is real, but when it's the product of a drug, it's more of an artificial happiness to me. We have to keep in mind, though, that there are other hormones are involved with making us feel happy, like serotonin and endorphins. Dopamine is more related to feeling pleasure and the motivation to find that pleasure, serotonin is considered the mood and pleasure hormone, and endorphins increase our feeling of happiness, improve our mood, and make us happy.

What is curiosity?

Curiosity is a type of intrinsic motivation that pushes us to find answers to questions. It is a natural behavior, even instinctual. Curiosity is the emotional aspect that leads us toward exploration, research, learning, and it could be considered a subsistence mechanism. If dopamine can lead to an addiction...Can you become addicted to curiosity? We can probably think of a few examples of an "addiction" to curiosity, scientists and researchers check all the boxes... Joking aside, being addicted to curiosity might not be considered a bad thing, it would make us more interested in learning about our world and would have the potential to bring about many huge advancements. The downside would be when you weren't able to find an answer. You would have to deal with the anger and frustration that comes along with not satisfying your addiction. It would be difficult to become addicted to curiosity, because the same way that the body releases dopamine, it also eliminates it to keep everything in balance. The problem with drugs like cocaine and amphetamines is that aside from increasing the production of dopamine, it also inhibits its elimination. All of this means that we accumulate a lot of dopamine in the synaptic space (more than 150%), and during a prolonged period of time. This accumulation creates new receptors to collect this dopamine, but having more receptors means that we need more dopamine the next time to make us feel pleasure-which is impossible to do naturally.

Is there some explanation that might help us understand why satisfying curiosity releases dopamine?

More than actually satisfying curiosity makes us release dopamine, I would argue that the curiosity itself is what actually causes the release and starts the learning process. As I mentioned before, dopamine is associated with anticipatory desire, so the prospect of learning new information causes us pleasure. Curiosity is a type of motivation in this case, which acts like that chocolate cake that we talked about earlier.

Why This Is Important

We all want to learn more, faster in every aspect of our lives. Imagine how great it would feel to be able to learn complex topics in minutes instead of days and weeks? Imagine learning something and truly being excited about it at the same time?

Learning and enjoyment don't have to be mutually exclusive.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Curiosity changes the chemistry of your brain. 00:26

  2. In a 2014 study, when participants were showed questions that interested them, parts of their brains associated with dopamine release became active. 00:58

  3. Learning while experiencing curiosity about a topic improves your brain's ability to store both relevant and irrelevant information. 01:47

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