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Simple brain hack: Switching to curious mode can improve learning

A new study led by Duke University has recently found that shifting from a high-pressure mindset to a more curious, explorative mode could help improve learning and long-term memory

According to the experts, people who imagined being a thief scouting a virtual art museum in preparation for a future heist were better at remembering what paintings they saw in comparison to those who played the same computer game but imagined that they were executing the heist in-the-moment. 

Such subtle differences in motivation – urgent, immediate goal-seeking versus curious exploration in preparation for a future goal – may have a significant potential for framing real-world challenges, such as prompting climate action and vaccine intake, or even treating a variety of psychiatric disorders.

How the research was conducted 

The researchers asked 420 participants to pretend to be art thieves for a day and randomly assigned them to one of the two groups. “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!’,” said lead author Alyssa Sinclair, a postdoctoral fellow in Brain Sciences at Duke. “Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who’s scouting the museum to plan a future heist.” 

After receiving the two different backstories, the participants played the exact same computer game in which they had to explore a virtual art museum with four colored doors, representing four different rooms. 

When clicking on a door, a painting from a room and its value were revealed. Regardless of the scenario they were pretending to be in, each participant earned real bonus money by finding more valuable paintings. 

The following day, the participants had to fill in a pop quiz in which they were asked to recognize 175 different paintings (100 from the day before and 75 new ones). If they recognized a painting, they also had to recall its value.

What the researchers discovered 

“The curious group participants who imagined planning a heist had better memory the next day. 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,” Sinclair reported.

However, participants from the other group were better at figuring out which doors hid more expensive artworks, and succeeded to snag more high value paintings, with their stash being appraised at about $230 more than the other group’s collection.

Urgent mode vs. curious mode

As the researchers stressed though, differences in strategies (urgent vs. curious) and outcomes (better memory vs. higher-value paintings) does not necessarily mean that one is better than the other. “It’s valuable to learn which mode is adaptive in a given moment and use it strategically,” said senior author Alison Adcock, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke.

For instance, to solve a short-term, pressing problem – such as escaping a bear during a hike or deciding whether to get a vaccine during a pandemic – being in an urgent, high-pressure mode might be a better option. However, for boosting long-term memory and actions, stressing people out may turn out to be significantly 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. Maybe for that, you need to put them in a curious mode so that they can actually retain that information,” Sinclair explained.

Different brain regions involved

The scientists are now examining how urgency and curiosity activate different parts of the brain. Early evidence suggests that being in an urgent mode involves the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain area known to play a major role in fear memory, while engaging in curious exploration shuttles the learning-enhancing neurotransmitter dopamine to the hippocampus, a brain region critical for forming detailed, long-term memories.

According to Adcock, who is also a clinical psychiatrist, these findings could potentially benefit psychiatric patients. “Most of adult psychotherapy is about how we encourage flexibility, like with curious mode. But it’s much harder for people to do since we spend a lot of our adult lives in an urgency mode,” she explained.

The thought exercises developed in this study may provide patients the ability to manipulate their own mental and brain states and develop “psychological maneuvers” that could act similarly to pharmaceuticals currently used in treating mental illness. “For me, the ultimate goal would be to teach people to do this for themselves. That’s empowering,” Adcock concluded.

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


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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