I have never been interested in history of any flavour and so I’ve struggled to find hooks in art and art history on which to hang information pertinent to my own work. In particular, identifying artists who might have influenced what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it leaves me blank. To remedy this, I have followed up recommendations of artists to look at, bought and read books describing developments in art history, and tried almost to manufacture post hoc the required ‘influences’. This article may describe one reason to account for this: because I have almost no curiosity about past things but plenty about people and their behaviour, the what of something was slides off my memory like oil off teflon, whereas the who and the how of someone is sticks like a gecko to a ceiling. This is the curiosity that is beginning to let me into the art world. Curiosity improves memory for its target and for that I need to know who the artist is in a way which satisfies my need to understand the motivational, psychological, cognitive, and social drivers for their work. This paper describing the research is republished with permission from The Conversation, 13th September 2019.
A discussion of implicit learning follows the article.
Curiosity: we’re studying the brain to help you harness it
They say curiosity killed the cat for a reason. Being curious has many advantages, but it is also associated with risk taking. But what is curiosity exactly? Is it really just one personality trait that you can have more or less of? Or do people have different “curiosity types” – being naturally more curious about people, sensations or knowledge?
We’re looking at people’s brains to find out. And we are hoping our research can help unlock the benefits of curiosity for learning and education.
We already know a bit about the neuroscience of curiosity. Have you ever desperately struggled to study a topic that just does not spark your curiosity, and then found you remember nothing when you try to recall it later? This makes total sense, as research demonstrates that being in a state of high curiosity enhances our memory for interesting information.
It might seem obvious that if you are curious about something, you pay more attention to it, making it easier to remember later – but the effects of curiosity on memory are more complex than this. Being in a highly curious state also improves our memory for information unrelated to what made us curious in the first place.
The link with learning can actually be seen in the brain. Curiosity leads to activation of several areas of the brain, particularly the regions known as the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area and the hippocampus. And connectivity between these same regions are associated with learning.
Fear and curiosity
Some early philosophers speculated that curiosity evolved as an instinct that helps us adapt to new environments by driving us to explore them. However, this seems to conflict with other theories suggesting we fear new environments because of the potential danger they may hold.
It seems curiosity and fear can be provoked by the same situations, with curiosity sometimes overriding our fear of exploring new things. For some, fear may form part of the excitement of curiosity. We know that brain systems linked with wanting to receive external rewards (like money or food) are activated when we are curious. This indicates that curiosity is a sort of craving of more information.
But curiosity has also been associated with characteristics that reflect risk taking, stress tolerance and thrill seeking. This is how curiosity got its bad wrap as a mortal danger to felines.
We all know some people tend to be more curious than others. Supporting this, research shows some individuals experience curiosity more frequently or intensely than others. But is curiosity as a personality trait just a level of degree – more versus less?
Instead, it may be that we are all similarly curious, but that personality drives us to be more curious about specific things or situations. These are known as curiosity “types”.
Epistemic curiosity has been widely researched. This describes a person’s desire to acquire new information – such as facts, concepts or ideas – and bridge any gaps in their knowledge.
Social curiosity, on the other hand, describes an individual’s fascination and fixation on how other people think, act and feel – which subsequently affects how they navigate the interpersonal world. People who show perceptual curiosity, on the other hand, try to maximise the sensory information they take in – like your friend who can’t stop looking around at anything and everything.
To help us understand if curiosity is one or many traits, our research looks at whether these different curiosity types are supported by different brain mechanisms. We also want to know whether being struck by a moment of curiosity sparks activity in the same brain areas that explain how curious a person is generally.
So far, our preliminary results suggest we may have identified an important area relating to epistemic curiosity – but not other types. Known as the fornix, this is a critical brain structure that connects the hippocampus (an important brain hub for memory) and brain areas related to learning, information seeking and exploration.
These findings make total sense. The more curious we are about information in general, the better the connections between brain networks associated with learning, information seeking and motivation.
This research can help us to understand how we can better harness curiosity in the real world, such as in work and educational settings.
As the fornix is related to enhanced learning, this suggests we should strive to create learning environments that foster exploration of ideas and information searching. This will help boost curiosity, with the fornix helping us remember what we learn better. Gaining knowledge in this way would be very different from just delivering a set teaching material.
There could be important benefits. Current research has shown that the effects of curiosity on learning are even stronger for children from families with a low socioeconomic status.
In the next years, our research will map out how different types of curiosity are related to different brain areas and how this enhances learning for various types of information. We will then better understand how our individual curiosity helps us to learn certain things in ways that are unique for us.
But it is already clear that there is a lot to gain from valuing and fostering curiosity in children. And this is not only true for children. Continuously stimulating our curiosity could lead to a more prosperous and fulfilling life as adults too.
Curiosity is not all there is to learning and memory. There is plenty of psychological research showing how rote learning is superficial and carries little meaning so although it might persist, it usually offers no real understanding. Give someone a paragraph to recall almost immediately and they will mostly repeat it word for word, losing some along the way, but ask them again a week later and if they recall it at all, it will be the gist of its meaning reported in their own words. I call this composting – turning bulky raw materials into dense substance out of which something new can grow. It’s efficient and takes up less space, but it depends on a primary curiosity or interest to start the process. This brings me to a second area of research – explicit versus implicit learning.
There’s a huge amount of research into how people differ in their ability to learn things deliberately and “explicitly”, such as memorising a list of words or instructions, for example. Far less studied is “implicit learning”. Ask a five-year-old to explain the grammatical rules of their language and they’ll likely have no clue where to start. And yet, they do know them – or at least, well enough to form coherent sentences. This kind of unconscious acquisition of abstract knowledge is an example of “implicit” learning. Emma Young for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, July 12th 2019.
While trying to learn explicitly about art, artists, and art history and finding myself struggling to generate an interest, I’ve realised from conversations with other students via Facebook and the Google email system, that I have actually absorbed information from this process sufficient to participate and also that a great deal more has been slipping in unnoticed over the years. Material I didn’t know I’d learned and that is now emerging as a result of an active pull on its tether – a classic demonstration of both implicit (passive) learning and recognition memory. Recall is harder; that involves having some idea where to look – like the general area you lost your keys – while recognition simply requires a contextual prompt. Ask people to recall a list of words ten minutes after reading them and compare it to recognising those words when they appear in a list along with a similar number of different words – recognition always wins out despite the distractions.
How am I going to capitalise on these constructs?
First is that by simply understanding the processes I can set up circumstances which make implicit learning more likely. Repetition, using audio as background, documentaries, and easy to read news articles. These frequently go into something of the person making the art and this information settles near to everything else I understand about people.
Second, to find explicit ways of burning information into that background memory so that recall becomes easier and I’m less reliant on recognition. Writing does that for me. And conversing, and where I can, helping someone who might be on the same baffling learning curve as myself.
Third, by reading the material I’d found impenetrable before, knowing now that I will recognise some of the key players and it will start to make sense. I think this is a process that mimics the way we learn language – implicitly at first by being immersed in it, and then explicitly by examining its architecture so we understand why words are spelled, punctuated, and arranged the way they are. As writers, the aim is to ‘know the rules to break the rules’. I imagine the same applies to art.
I’m not sure when identifiable influences on my work will emerge; the possibilities go back a long way from early psychedelia, Sgt Pepper, and Pink Floyd album covers, through Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott, Beardsley’s stark ink drawing of Salome with John the Baptist’s head, and almost anything pre-Raphaelite; Mary Quant’s fashion revolution with its clean lines and unfussy geometry, all of the Campbell’s soup tins, Monroe, Che Guevara art-in-shops output, the first Tutankhamun exhibition in London, Hockney’s swimming pools, Perry’s pots, Klimt the glint; and latterly Rego, the weirdness that is Marina Abramovic, Banksy (and who says that’s a man?), and Sean Scully reborn artistically after the birth of his second son.
That’s my top-of-the-head recall list. No searching, no trying hard, no real effort. It feels like progress.