Humans are curious, but, among them, I believe, collectors are even more so, at least in the area in which they collect. They score high in openness on the Big Five Personality scale, which supports this point of view (openness suggests welcoming new experiences). In the olden days, there was yet another indication, though it wasn’t based on science but rather an observation. The cabinet in which collector’s specimens were displayed was expressed as the Cabinet of Curiosities. This descriptive term established yet again a link between curiosity and collecting.
Today, we know more about why collecting and curiosity go together. Curiosity makes learning easier. Though that is not so unexpected, the adjunct to it is surprising. We remember unrelated material better when it is presented at the same time as the information about which we are curious. For example, if a dealer gives her or his client a history lesson on the object purchased, the buyer is likely to recall not only the facts pertinent to the object itself (about which they are curious) but also the relevant history imparted during the same conversation about which they may not have been curious.
Three University of California Davis researchers, Matthias J. Gruber, Bernard D. Gelman, and Charan Ranganath demonstrated this in their paper entitled, “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit.” In it, they studied recall for information provided to subjects that expressed interest compared with those who did not. When the study participants were curious and wanted to know answers, they had a better immediate recall of the information provided as well as 24 hours later. Those who were not curious about the subject did not exhibit this advantage. Additionally, a totally extraneous photo provided at the same time as the material the subjects were curious about was recalled better immediately and a day later as well.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging was performed alongside the psychological testing. The nucleus accumbens or pleasure center and the substantia nigra-ventral tegmental area containing dopaminergic connections to the pleasure center were stimulated when the curious subjects anticipated learning. The substantia nigra-ventral tegmental area is also aroused with novelty that could be related to curiosity as a stimulant. Notwithstanding, the substantia nigra-ventral tegmental areas are associated with pleasure. Further, the hippocampus, the memory area, was also active suggesting that learning was taking place.
All of this tells us that though “Curiosity May Kill the Cat,” it appears to act as a positive rather than a negative force in humans. It enhances learning, not only for the specific subject matter at hand that the participant is curious about but also for other information presented at the same time. Human experience is enhanced rather than diminished in those who are curious.
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