Be more curious: Simple brain hack boosts memory and learning

DURHAM, N.C. — Perhaps complacency killed the cat — instead of curiosity. Researchers from Duke University suggest a simple brain hack involving curiosity can help improve memory and learning skills. Study authors found that shifting from a high-pressure mindset to a more creative outlook improves a person’s memory.

More specifically, researchers found that those who imagined themselves as thieves scouting a virtual art museum in preparation for a heist were better at remembering the paintings they saw in comparison to others who played the same computer game while imagining they were executing the heist at that very moment.

These subtle differences in motivation — urgent, immediate goal-seeking versus curious exploration for a future goal — harbor significant implications when framing real-world challenges such as encouraging people to get a vaccine, prompting climate change action, and treating psychiatric disorders.

Alyssa Sinclair, Ph.D. ’23, a postdoctoral researcher working in the lab of Duke Institute for Brain Sciences director Alison Adcock, Ph.D., M.D., recruited 420 adults to take part in this study. Participants pretended to be art thieves for a day. Then, researchers randomly assigned them to one of two groups featuring different backstories.

“For the urgent group, we told them, ‘You’re a master thief, you’re doing the heist right now. Steal as much as you can!’” Sinclair says in a university release. “Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who’s scouting the museum to plan a future heist.”

Woman sitting at art gallery or museum

After getting the different backstories, each person across both groups played the exact same computer game, scored the exact same way. Participants explored an art museum with four colored doors, representing different rooms, and clicking on a door would reveal a painting from the room and its value. Certain rooms held more valuable collections of art. No matter which scenario they were pretending to be in, though, everyone earned real bonus money by finding more valuable paintings.

The influence of the two different mindsets became most apparent the following day. When the participants logged back in, they were greeted with a pop quiz regarding whether they could recognize 175 different paintings (100 from the day before, and 75 new works of art). If someone flagged a specific painting as familiar, they also had to recall how much it was worth.

Sinclair and her co-author, fellow Duke psychology & neuroscience graduate student Candice Yuxi Wang, explain they felt gratified after grading the tests and seeing their predictions validated­­.

The curious group participants who imagined planning a heist had better memory the next day,” Sinclair explains. “They correctly recognized more paintings. They remembered how much each painting was worth. And reward boosted memory, so valuable paintings were more likely to be remembered. But we didn’t see that in the urgent group participants who imagined executing the heist.”

Urgent group participants, notably, had a different advantage. These volunteers were better at figuring out which doors hid more expensive pieces, and consequently, earned more high-value paintings. Their stash was appraised at roughly $230 more than the curious participants’ collection.

These differences in strategies (curious versus urgent) and outcomes (better memory versus higher-valued paintings) don’t necessarily mean one is better than the other, the study authors stress.

“It’s valuable to learn which mode is adaptive in a given moment and use it strategically,” Dr. Adcock notes.

For instance, being in an urgent, high-pressure mode may be the best option for a short-term problem.

“If you’re on a hike and there’s a bear, you don’t want to be thinking about long-term planning,” Sinclair says. “You need to focus on getting out of there right now.”

Man woman brain
(© denisismagilov –

Going with an urgent mindset might also be helpful during less grisly scenarios requiring short-term focus, Sinclair explains – like encouraging people to get a COVID vaccine. However, when it comes to encouraging long-term memory or action, this work indicates stressing people out is less effective.

“Sometimes you want to motivate people to seek information and remember it in the future, which might have longer term consequences for lifestyle changes,” Sinclair continues. “Maybe for that, you need to put them in a curious mode so that they can actually retain that information.”

Both Sinclair and Wang are now following up on these findings by working on determining how urgency and curiosity activate different parts of the brain. Early evidence indicates that by engaging the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain region known for its role in fear memory, “urgent mode” helps form focused, efficient memories. Curious exploration, on the other hand, appears to move the learning-enhancing neurochemical dopamine to the hippocampus, a brain area considered crucial for forming detailed long-term memories.

With these findings in mind, Dr. Adcock is now exploring how her lab’s research could benefit the patients she works with as a psychiatrist.

“Most of adult psychotherapy is about how we encourage flexibility, like with curious mode” Dr. Adcock adds. “But it’s much harder for people to do since we spend a lot of our adult lives in an urgency mode.”

Such thought exercises may allow people to manipulate their own neuro-chemical spigots and develop psychological maneuvers, or cues that act similarly to pharmaceuticals.

“For me, the ultimate goal would be to teach people to do this for themselves,” Dr. Adcock concludes. “That’s empowering.”

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You might also be interested in:

YouTube video

Follow on Google News

About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer


Comments are closed.