If you have a small child, chances are good that you’ve answered a lot of questions. Why is the sky blue? Why can’t I wash my hands in the toilet? Why can’t I have a sixth copy of the same Doc McStuffins book I already own? Kids ask a ton of questions, and that’s a good thing. We might get sick of answering “Why?” all day, but we should actually be encouraging that sort of behavior, because curiosity helps them learn better.

According to research in Neuron, curiosity makes us more eager to learn things, and it also makes us better at remembering things. A person in a “curious state” is more likely to remember even boring or irrelevant things observed in that state.

We learn better about things that interest us.

Researchers describe curiosity as “intrinsic motivation to learn.” They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure how memory is affected by being in a state of high curiosity. This is a thing we’ve probably all experienced in real life. We remember things better when they’re subjects we’re interested in. I do a ton of bar trivia nights, and I am absolutely terrible at remembering sports facts, even if I study in advance, but I remember literally everything I have ever heard about food or in the presence of food.

Kids in particular are walking examples of this. How many facts does the average 10-year-old know about Minecraft. You could probably get a kid to remember history facts better if you said, “The Founding Fathers played Minecraft on July 3, 1776, and then Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Just kidding about the Minecraft part. The rest is real, though.”

One of the things that’s important about this is the researchers talk about external rewards versus intrinsic motivation. You can give gold stars or M&Ms all day for reading books. But nothing is going to work as well as a kid actually liking to read books. That’s why so many teachers and librarians are totally cool with kids reading comic books. Anything that can be done to nurture that intrinsic motivation is going to have better long-term results than bribing or begging a kid to slog through books that don’t interest them.

As Scary Mommy points out, this brain-imaging research into curiosity and learning patterns has ramifications about the time and ways we teach things to kids. Like, is there a time a child is more naturally curious? Should certain subjects be taught at certain times of the day? (My undergrad certainly thought so. All language classes involved an early morning “drill” component where they’d make you wake up at 7 a.m. to be yelled at in a language you didn’t speak yet. Grammar lessons were a few hours later after you’d had time to get coffee and be less hungover.)

Reward natural curiosity

Everyone is curious about some things, but it looks like some people are more naturally curious than others, just in general. That might be linked to the way some kids are labeled as “gifted.” If the curiosity centers of the brain fire more quickly or more easily than in other people, and people remember things better while they’re activated, then people like that would likely have an advantage when it comes to learning. (The SAT reading comprehension essays are practically designed to be boring, but if your curiosity centers start firing when you get one, you’ll probably have an easier time answering the questions than someone who finds it a chore.)

A lot of various factors can affect how inquisitive a person is. It’s not all genetic. Stress and sleep can play a big part. Curiosity is key to learning, so we should be doing our best to reward curiosity when our kids show it. If that means having to answer “why?” 400 times a day, then so be it.

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(H/T Scary Mommy, Image: iStockPhoto / Tomwang112)