Shifting mindsets: How curiosity can improve learning and memory

A new study led by Duke University has found that curiosity can enhance learning and long-term memory. The study found that curiosity and an exploratory approach can have significant advantages over the pursuit of urgency (urgent action). This finding has implications for a variety of real-world challenges, including combating climate change, administering vaccines, and even treating mental health disorders.

The study involved 420 participants who were asked to imagine themselves as art thieves. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups: an urgency group and a curiosity group. The urgency group was asked to imagine that they were committing a heist at the moment, while the curiosity group was asked to imagine that they were exploring a museum while planning a future heist. Both groups then played a computer game in which they explored a virtual art museum with four colored doors representing different rooms.

The next day, participants in the experiment were tested on their ability to recognize and recall paintings. The researchers found that the curious group who imagined planning a robbery had better memory. They correctly recognized more paintings and remembered their prices. In contrast, the “urgent” group did not have such an improvement in memory. Interestingly, the urgent group was better at recognizing the doors behind which the more expensive artwork was hidden and collected a stash worth about $230 more than the curious group.

The researchers emphasize that neither mode is inherently an advantage over the other. The choice between the urgent or curious mode depends on the specific situation and the desired outcome. The urgent mode may be more effective for immediate problems or quick decisions, such as rescuing from danger or deciding whether to vaccinate during a pandemic. However, to activate long-term memory and action, the curious mode of thinking proves to be more useful.

Senior study author Alison Adcock, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, emphasizes the importance of using different types of thinking strategically. She believes that understanding which mode is adaptive in the moment can lead to better decision-making and improved memory.

This study builds on previous research on the effects of thinking patterns on cognitive processes. It is consistent with psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset, which emphasizes that abilities can be developed through commitment and hard work. The findings also resonate with historical figures known for their inquisitive thinking, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who approached his work with tireless curiosity and exploration.

Alyssa Sinclair, lead author of the study, explains the significance of the findings, “Participants in the inquisitive group who visualized planning a robbery had better recall the next day….. Rewards improved memory, so valuable pictures were more likely to be remembered.”

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