The wick in the candle of learning: epistemic curiosity activates reward circuitry and enhances memory

Psychol Sci. 2009 Aug;20(8):963-73. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02402.x. Epub 2009 Jul 8.


Curiosity has been described as a desire for learning and knowledge, but its underlying mechanisms are not well understood. We scanned subjects with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they read trivia questions. The level of curiosity when reading questions was correlated with activity in caudate regions previously suggested to be involved in anticipated reward. This finding led to a behavioral study, which showed that subjects spent more scarce resources (either limited tokens or waiting time) to find out answers when they were more curious. The functional imaging also showed that curiosity increased activity in memory areas when subjects guessed incorrectly, which suggests that curiosity may enhance memory for surprising new information. This prediction about memory enhancement was confirmed in a behavioral study: Higher curiosity in an initial session was correlated with better recall of surprising answers 1 to 2 weeks later.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Caudate Nucleus / physiology
  • Exploratory Behavior / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Globus Pallidus / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood*
  • Parahippocampal Gyrus / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Putamen / physiology
  • Reading
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen