Why Ask Why?

The Curious Case for Curiosity

When my daughter turned two and a half, it was almost as if the “Why? switch” turned on in her brain. For well over a year and a half, she asked, “Why?” to just about anything that I did or said. I would respond with an explanation, and she would follow it up with another, “Why?” And then another and another.

Typical toddler behavior? Perhaps. Even today, at seven years old, my daughter is incredibly curious. She has expanded her questioning vocabulary and syntax, but her hunger for understanding and her desire to know is often insatiable.

Our Brains on Curiosity

It turns out, there may be a really great neurological explanation for curiosity. Research suggests that curiosity activates the same parts of our brain that are activated when we receive things that are rewarding, such as money or candy. Thanks to a flood of dopamine, our brains experience the meer act of curiosity as rewarding.

The cautionary tale of cats notwithstanding, curiosity seems to have positive side effects. The same research demonstrates a connection between curiosity and activation of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the creation of memories. The flood of dopamine that occurs during the peak of curiosity seems to prime the hippocampus, preparing it to learn. Our brains learn best and retain their learning longer when we are curious during the act of memory-making!

Encouraging Curiosity

So what is the takeaway here for busy parents in the face of the constant string of whys (and what ifs and hows and… you know what I’m getting at here)? And what about the kids who seem to have lost or started with a lower level of curiosity? Is there any hope for their hippocampus to enjoy a learning-inducing dopamine bath?   

The good news is that feeding curiosity does not require knowing all of the answers. Sharing our own curiosity about a question can motivate a kid who is already curious to come up with a way to figure out their own answer to a question. In fact, recent research suggests that curiosity can even be contagious! Demonstrating our own curiosity about the world can make kids (and others) curious, too. Encouraging curiosity in those who aren’t asking questions may be as simple as pointing out something unusual or asking our own questions out loud. And the added benefit of our own curiosity? Dopamine all around!

Want to learn more about your brain on curiosity? Check out Matthias Gruber’s TEDx Talk as he describes his team’s research on curiosity, the brain, and learning.


Tiffany Kapler

Tiffany Kapler

Tiffany is a science educator, parent, and primate enthusiast.

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