Today’s #throwbackthursday post (brought to you from Museums and the Web Asia in Seoul…) was inspired by an article I recently read, How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning, reporting on new work that tested brain patterns and curiosity. There were several major findings from the study:
- when people were highly curious to find out the answer to a question, they were better at learning that information
- once their curiosity was aroused, they showed better learning of entirely unrelated information that they encountered but were not necessarily curious about
- people were also better able to retain the information learned during a curious state across a 24-hour delay
- when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward
- when curiosity motivated learning, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for forming new memories, as well as increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit
The researchers summed up their work this way: ‘… curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance’.
This reminded me of a 2004 Curator article by Jay Rounds Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor, and another by Dan Spock, The Puzzle of Museum Educational Practice in 2006 that looked into the issue of curiosity and museum visitors. Rounds noted that curiosity was an important evolutionary adaptation where humans “forage” for information that may come in handy in future when “snap” decisions need to be made without the luxury of time to research (think of all that trivia we have in our heads that we miraculously recall at dinner parties!). He proposed that curiosity-driven visitors, while exhibiting behaviours that we may see as unfocused or unsystematic, are actually driven to find exhibits that immediately piqué their interest and move quite quickly until they find them. These visitors will usually not stop to orient themselves, instead wanting to get into the visit straightaway, flitting between individual exhibits rather than an entire exhibition. It is an interesting idea and the article is worth reading in detail for a different take on visitor tracking studies, and to think about in how we navigate information online.
In the 2006 article, Spock looked at identity generally and curiosity specifically as an important component of a person’s identity and sense of self (for more on identity and museums see the Kelly, 2010 references below). He raised the question that if museums are not great at “authoritative teaching” then ‘… why not just toss a bunch of stuff out there and let people make of it what they will, since that’s what visitors do anyway’ (p. 176), especially, as the behaviours exhibited by the curiosity-driven visitor seem to support this notion (Rounds, 2004). Spock argued that ‘The goal, from the museum-goer’s perspective, may not be best understood as a desire to quench curiosity, so much as to extend and prolong it’ (p. 178). Spock concludes (in a similar vein to Rounds) that ‘At the end of the day, museums might be better at provoking curiosity than satisfying it. And revelling in wonder may be more pleasurable in a museum context than vanquishing wonder with knowledge’ (p. 178), going so far to suggest that museums ‘… stand for the value of curiosity for its own sake’ and that they ‘… have to be seen by curious people as places where curiosity finds reward and reinforcement’ (p. 179).
Rounds noted that curiosity is the foundation of creativity: ‘We best enhance our potential for creativity by acquiring a large and diverse store of “useless” information. Highly creative people in all fields tend to be intensely curious’. (p. 394). As concluded in the very first article above ‘The more curious we are about a topic, the easier it is to learn information about that topic’, which is a great opportunity for museums to be seen as creative, learning spaces where visitors can have their curiosity both satisfied and piqued, leaving them wanting to know more. Could these ideas also relate to museum websites and online collections – meeting the needs of (curious) digital visitors who just want to browse, as Seb Chan suggested so long ago?
- Cell Press. How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning. Science Daily, 2 October 2014.
- Chan, S. (2007). Tagging and Searching – Serendipity and museum collection databases. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (Eds). Museums and the Web 2007: ProceedingsToronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.
- Rounds, J. (2004). Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor. Curator, 47(4), 389-412.
- Spock, D. (2006). The Puzzle of Museum Educational Practice: A Comment on Rounds and Falk. Curator, 49(2), 167-180.
Identity blog posts:
- Kelly, L. (2011). What is identity?
- Kelly, L. (2010). How has identity been described in a museum context?
- Kelly, L. (2010). Museum visitors and learning identities.
- Kelly, L. (2010). Who is the public? A talk by John Falk.