Curiosity-Driven Mindset Improves Memory Retention

Shifting from a high-pressure mindset to one of curiosity improves people’s memory, according to research.

According to new Duke research, persons who imagined themselves as thieves exploring a virtual art museum in preparation for a heist were better at remembering the paintings, they viewed than people who played the same computer game while pretending they were conducting the heist in-the-moment.

People’s memory improves when they shift from a high-pressure attitude to a curious one. The new discoveries could help with a variety of real-world issues, such as increasing vaccination uptake and addressing climate change, as well as sparking novel treatments for psychiatric conditions.

Difference between urgent goal-seeking and curious exploration for a future goal

These modest distinctions in motivation – urgent, immediate goal-seeking vs curious research for a future goal – have a lot of potential for framing real-world challenges like convincing people to be vaccinated, motivating climate change action, and even treating psychiatric diseases.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Alyssa Sinclair, Ph.D. ’23, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Alison Adcock, Ph.D., M.D., director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, recruited 420 adults to pretend to be art thieves for a day. After then, the individuals were randomly allocated to one of two groups and given distinct backstories.

“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!’,” Sinclair said. “Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who’s scouting the museum to plan a future heist.” However, after receiving these various backstories, participants in the two groups played identical computer games and were rated in the same manner. When they clicked on one of the four coloured doors in the art gallery they were exploring, an artwork from that room and its price were revealed.

Some chambers housed more valuable art collections. Everyone received real bonus money by discovering more valuable paintings, regardless of whatever scenario they pretended to be in.

Curious versus Urgent – To adapt a mode strategically

The next day was when the effects of this shift in perspective became most noticeable. After logging back in, participants were presented with a pop quiz asking them to name 175 distinct paintings—100 from the day before and 75 new ones. Participants were required to recollect the price of any paintings they indicated as being familiar.

After grading the tests to determine if their hypotheses came true, Sinclair and her co-author, fellow Duke psychology & neuroscience graduate student Candice Yuxi Wang, were pleased. “The curious group participants who imagined planning a heist had better memory the next day,” Sinclair said.

“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.”

Participants in the urgent group, however, saw a different benefit. They acquired more pricey artworks because they were more adept at identifying which doors concealed more expensive items. Their stockpile was valued at approximately $230 more than the participants’ collection of curiosities. However, the distinction between the two approaches (curious versus urgent) and their respective results (greater memory versus higher-valued paintings) does not imply that one approach is superior to the other.

“It’s valuable to learn which mode is adaptive in a given moment and use it strategically,” Dr. Adcock said.

High-pressure mode is best for short-term problems

For instance, for a short-term issue, operating in an urgent, high-pressure mode might be the best course of action. “You don’t want to be thinking about long-term planning if you’re on a walk and there’s a bear,” Sinclair advised.

“You need to concentrate on leaving there right now.” According to Sinclair, adopting an urgent mindset may be advantageous in less gruesome circumstances requiring immediate attention, such as encouraging individuals to receive the covid vaccine.

The curious mode works for encouraging long-term memory or action

Stressing individuals out has a lower impact on promoting long-term memory or activity. “Sometimes you want to motivate people to seek information and remember it in the future, which might have longer-term consequences for lifestyle changes,” Sinclair said. “Maybe for that, you need to put them in a curious mode so that they can actually retain that information.”

To determine how urgency and curiosity affect the brain’s various regions, Sinclair and Wang are currently investigating these results. Early research suggests that “urgent mode” aids in the formation of concentrated, effective memories by activating the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain area well recognised for its function in fear memory.

Curiosity-driven inquiry, however, appears to transport the dopamine-enhancing neurochemical to the hippocampus, a part of the brain essential for creating specific long-term memories. Dr. Adcock is investigating how the research being done in her lab might also help the patients she treats as a psychiatrist considering these brain findings.

Psychological manoeuvres

“Most of the adult psychotherapy is about how we encourage flexibility, like with curious mode,” Dr. Adcock said. “But it’s much harder for people to do since we spend a lot of our adult lives in an urgency mode.” According to Dr. Adcock, these mental exercises may enable people to control their own neurochemical spigots and create “psychological manoeuvres,” or cues that function similarly to medications.

“For me, the ultimate goal would be to teach people to do this for themselves,” Dr. Adcock said. “That’s empowering.” Support for the research came from a Duke Health Scholars Award from Duke University.

Story Source:
Materials provided by Duke University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Alyssa H. Sinclair, Yuxi C. Wang, R. Alison Adcock. Instructed motivational states bias reinforcement learning and memory formation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2023; 120 (31) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2304881120

Page citation:
Duke University. “One simple brain hack might boost learning and improve mental health: Curiosity supercharges people’s memory for paintings they saw while pretending to be an art thief.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 July 2023. <>.

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