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The neuroscience behind curiosity and motivation

21st April 2015

Neuroscientifically there is a difference between a behaviour and a process. Curiosity is a cognitive process which leads to the behaviour perceived as motivation. In other words if a person is highly curious they will be a highly motivated individual.

From the point of view of business curiosity is quite an interesting concept to know. As when you understand what makes a person curious, you can gain insight to their perspectives and motivations. This insight is paramount to keeping clients interested in your brand or pique their interest. If people are curious about your brand they will be motivated to interact with it and you will keep them interested.

From the human perspective the relationship between curiosity and motivation creates a feedback; the more curious one becomes about something the more motivated one will be, and the more motivated one is the more one learns and the more curious one will become.

As with all cognitive processes’ curiosity is highly complex and involves many systems of the brain, so for purposes of business we will concentrate on  dopamine, the hippocampus and the amygdala.

Dopamine: First, lets set the hierarchy of function – Curiosity is a cognitive process influenced by the rewards system, which in turn is mediated by dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is transmitted via dopamine specific neurons, these neurons are found along a specific pathway, which is referred to dopaminergic pathway system. This neurotransmitter influences many of our brain systems including cognitive, sensory, motor and limbic. It is also one of the oldest pathways, giving a significant evolutionary role.

The main correlation between curiosity and dopamine is to instigate our seeking processes. Both the anticipation of novelty and the interaction with something novel releases dopamine. The theory is that it engages one’s reward system, in the same way that sex, love, or hunger does.  The reward being a surge of dopamine!

The process of curiosity is intrinsic to our development and may have an evolutionary role. In the absence of stimuli, we will seek it out. This means when there is little stimuli we will seek out to create stimuli, that processes of “seeking out” is due to curiosity. Without curiosity we would lack the motivation to explore, learn new things, acquire new knowledge, seek relationships, in short it is part of our evolutionary development.

The Hippocampus: Its tie to curiosity is through memory and learning, because events and/or actions that elicit a high emotional response will create longer lasting memories. In other words, when one is curious their brain engages further and creates more of a heightened experience due to the release of dopamine.  This causes the retention of that action or event as a more vivid episodic memory. In regards to learning curiosity acts as motivation to learn new skills or knowledge. It also plays a role in retention and focus. This means that the more curious you are about  something the more motivated you will be to engage with it, the more focused you will be and you will retain the new skill or knowledge better.

The amygdala: is a region in the brain that is part of the limbic system, which regulates emotion, immune system, and memory. Studies have show that it plays a role in the mediation of emotion towards a novel stimuli. Furthermore, the process of curiosity could help mediate fear towards the novel.