Curiosity and a Healthy Memory

This post is based on and inspired by a piece by the excellent science writer Sharon Begley in the June 2016 issue of Mindful titled “Why So Curious?”  Albert Einstein wrote, “curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Samuel Johnson called curiosity “the first passion and the last.”  Thomas Hobbes called curiosity the lust of the mind.”  The founder of American Psychology, William James proposed in1899 that curiosity is “the impulse towards better cognition.  And better cognition implies a better mind and a healthy memory.

Cognitive scientists believe that the best way to understand curiosity is that it is the mental analogue of physical hunger.  The feeling that there is a growling hole in our store of knowledge drives the search for information.  This urge  to sate cognitive hunger  is associated with persistence and solving problems German and American researchers reported in a 2013 study in the Journal of Individual Differences.

A 2011 review of 200 individual studies concluded that “although intelligence is the strongest predictor of academic success, curiosity plus effort rival the influence of intelligence” scientists wrote  in Perspectives on Psychology Science.  They concluded that “a hungry mind is a core determinant of individual differences in academic achievement.”  There is much similarity here between curiosity and Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset.

The health memory blog post “Finally, Hope on the Prediction Front” provides a brief summary to Tetlock’s book “Superforecasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction.”   This was a very large study done for IARPA on research as to what makes for a good intelligence analyst.  Curiosity was a key factor.

This link between curiosity and learning might become even more important as we age.  In one recent study scientists had younger adults (average age 20) and older adults (average age 73)  read 60 trivia questions such was “what product is second, only to oil, in terms of the largest trade volumes in the world?” and “what was the first nation  go give women the right to vote?”  Everyone  rated how curious they were  about the answer.  Curiosity had a substantial effect on how likely the older (but not the younger) adults were to recall the answers a week later.  This was a 2015 study by Alan Castel and colleagues reported in “Psychology and Aging.”

A  1996 study of 2,153 70-ish men and women found that the more curious they were, in general, as well as when presented with questions, the more likely they were to be alive in five years.

So curiosity is central to a healthy memory and has a wide variety of benefits.

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