The curiosity-driven brain: the curiosity-driven visitor #tbt

Skeletons Visit the museumToday’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?


Identity blog posts:



4 thoughts on “The curiosity-driven brain: the curiosity-driven visitor #tbt

  1. The Object Agency says:

    That finding about people in a curious state being able to retain unrelated information they weren’t curious about is fascinating. That really shows how important it is to spark curiosity in a museum early on for a visitor. Great post, thanks!

    • lyndakelly61 says:

      Thnx for your comment and sorry it took awhile for me to post. I think these ideas free up museums to be able to be more creatibe in their programming and not worry too much about “forcing” parhways and feeding content to visitors as long as it is based in good front-end research about prior knowldge, as in one of my later blog post. Cheers!

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