Does Curiosity Make People More Intelligent?

Does Curiosity Make People More Intelligent?
Sara Clemente

Written and verified by psychologist and journalist Sara Clemente.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

What happens in your brain when something catches your interest? A scientific study published in Neuron, a scientific journal in the Cell Press family, explains that curiosity is not only personally satisfying but also associated with good memory and learning capacity.

However, the association between intelligence and curiosity has one caveat. While the first one can be “measured” with so-called IQ, the second one is a personality trait. So how can we link these two concepts?

There is no unequivocal definition of intelligence

What exactly do we call intelligence? This is the first question you have to ask yourself in order to understand how curiosity affects intelligence. However, there is no simple answer to this question. Quite the opposite. It’s a very difficult concept to define since “intelligence” encompasses many different meanings, functions, and areas.

Most experts in the field agree that intelligence is a mental capacity involving different abilities. Among them is the ability to reason, give meaning to reality and create plans. It also involves the capacity to solve problems, memorize, think abstractly, and understand or generate new data from previous information.

It begs another question. If we reinforce some of the above-mentioned skills, is it possible to increase our intelligence? This is one of the issues the study we mentioned above addresses. We’ll elaborate below.

Two hedges shaped like heads that fit together.

Curiosity improves your memory

Curious people retain information better (Gruber, 2014). That means that it’s easier for you to memorize information about topics you find appealing over topics that don’t interest you.

Why does this happen? It happens because curiosity is closely related to motivation. Your memorizing ability goes up when you feel motivated. Let’s give an example to understand it better.

It will be much easier for an animal lover to remember the exact name of the primate species from which we evolved than for someone who doesn’t care about animals. As Gruber said, “Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it.”

Curiosity and intrinsic motivation

Continuing with the example, you can see that the animal lover’s motivation to learn about the animal world is very strong. He wants to know more about the specific topic because he’s passionate about it. This motivation is intrinsic and is another explanatory factor of curiosity.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within you and it means you do things for the mere satisfaction of doing them. It makes you feel self-fulfilled and it makes you grow. Unlike extrinsic motivation, it doesn’t require any type of external incentive (like money, for example). Nor is it linked to the getting any particular result (like winning first place).

Our hobbies are probably the clearest example of this type of intrinsic motivation. You ride a bike because it makes you feel good and you love being outdoors. Well, something similar happens with curiosity. You check out new things because of the pleasure it gives you to learn about something that interests you.

As you can see, both curiosity and motivation are essential for the learning process to take place. That’s why it’s harder for you to retain information when you’re studying something you don’t like at all. You’re more likely to forget everything you studied after a few hours. It won’t even leave a trace in your memory.

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
-Stephen Hawking-

A woman with arms outstretched, the pleasure of curiosity.

What happens in the brains of curious people?

The team of researchers from Neuron discovered that stimulating curiosity and awakening the strong intrinsic motivation it entails strongly activates the cerebral circuit related to the reward system.

Specifically, it increases brain activity in three key regions of the cerebral cortex. These regions are closely linked to the processes of learning, memory, and the repetition of pleasurable behaviors.

  • Left caudate nucleus: This region is closely linked to both learning and memory as well as the acquisition of new knowledge and positive emotions.
  • Nucleus accumbens: Researchers have looked at its relationship with addictions and the reward circuit, especially when it comes to natural reinforcers: food, sex, and video games.
  • Hippocampus: This structure is essential for the formation of new memories.

“So curiosity recruits the reward system, and the interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you’re more likely to learn and retain information.”

A better future

These conclusions opened the doors to new research on possible ways to improve the learning process. Furthermore, this won’t just apply to curious people who are perfectly healthy. It will also be for those who have some type of neurological disorder. Practically speaking, they reveal the importance of teachers stimulating their students’ curiosity. It’s useless to spend hours teaching when the students aren’t at all interested.

The future lies in developing these new educational strategies. The learning process could be better if teachers could awaken curiosity in their students. The same thing happens in the workplace. Curiosity is key!

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.