Why Ask Why? On Toddlers, the Brain, and Learning


When my daughter turned two and a half, it was almost as if the "Why? switch" turned on in her brain. Actually, maybe that is exactly what happened. 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?" Sometimes I had to ask her what she was even asking Why? about. Even her daycare provider, who had three children, three grandchildren, and over 20 years of childcare experience commented that she asked, "Why?" a lot.

A friend with a son the same age mentioned that she had read that toddlers often ask Why? to be part of the conversation as their communication skills are developing. Another way of looking at it was that my daughter didn't necessarily want the exact answers to her questions. Instead, she really was trying to convey the message that something was interesting, and she wanted to talk more about it with me.

Butterfly Investigation 1500What surprised me was not that she was curious. The question Why? implies curiosity. The revelation was that she was curious about much more than she could articulate. She had this one word that could keep me talking about the object(s) of her curiosity. She didn't want to know why. She simply wanted to know

Even today, at nearly five 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. Sure, there are elements of her world that she finds mundane. Generally speaking she is not particularly interested in learning letters that are not in her name or the names of schoolmates with whom she rarely plays. Just don't get her started on dinosaurs, almost any form of invertebrate, or lunar landings! Trust me. Her inquiring mind wants to know.

Your Brain on Curiosity

Up until recently, I might have explained my daughter's inherent curiosity as part of her exploration of an ever expanding world. Physical mobility, as well as increased communication skills allow toddlers to explore and experience more than they could have a few short months earlier. These days, her world has expanded even more, as she navigates preschool, new friends, and additional adults in her life. The more she learns, the more she realizes there is to learn. The more she explores, the more she realize there is to explore. 

Then the other day I ran across a study published last year in the journal Neuron. This newest research suggests that curiosity activates the same parts of our brain that are activated when we recieve things that are rewarding, such as money or candy. In other words, our brains experience the act of curiosity as rewarding in and of itself. When these parts of the brain are activated the synapses are flooded with dopamine, giving us a natural high. So the more that my daughter asks why and expresses her curiosity, the better she feels. No wonder she gets so frustrated when my answer is a simple, "I don't know," effectively putting an end to the conversation. 

Brain squareThe study went on to demonstrate 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. Study participants who were intrinsically motivated by curiosity, retained more of the new information and for a longer period of time. Indeed, it appears that our brains learn best and retain their learning longer when we are curious during the act of memory-making!

The researchers didn't bring it up, but it didn't escape my notice that, with all that dopamine flooding the brain, the learners were probably also having a pretty good time. 

They went one step further and included additional, unrelated information by flashing images of faces at the same time that study participants were demonstrating high levels of curiosity in the brain. Interestingly, memory-retention of this unrelated visual information was also inhanced when participants were highly curious, even when they were not curious at all about the faces. The learning-enhancing power of curiosity appears to be transitory and to include learning of other, less compelling information presented at the time of high curiosity. 

So what is the practical take away here?

How can we utilize this fascinating new understanding about the neurological connection between curiosity and enhanced learning? 

Perhaps for those of us with children in our homes and classrooms there is a simple lesson to be learned. Curiosity - especially the passionate kind - has a purpose and a role in learning. When we are exhausted from the constant string of whys, we do not need to always respond with the correct answers. We can share what we do know about the subject or what makes us curious about it, as well. We can offer books and resources to let children and students  explore the objects of their curiosity. Some days, we may even need to let the curiosity take the lead and then follow up later with the original plan for the day. The upshot, of course, is that we can rest easy knowing that learning is taking place.

Parents and informal educators may be especially able to capitalize on children's innate curiosity, as they may have more flexibility and may be able to provide new experiences that pique curiosity in the first place.

This new evidence is compelling, though, even for formal educators who may have less flexibility. If learning can be enhanced by encouraging curiosity, how can we, as educators, present materials in novel ways that catch students' attention and spark curiosity? How can we capitalize upon the curiosity-driven dopamine rush and co-present compelling learning opportunities that spark curiosity with other seemingly mundane topics? 

Is there a way for me to fill my daughter's curiosity cup about spiders and dragonflies while simultaneosly presenting opportunities to familiarize her with the letters D, F, and H? Now that I type out that question, that answer feels pretty obvious. Looks like it's time to pull out her favorite insect book!

What do you think?

How can we use this new understanding of curiosity and the brain to enhance learning in our homes, schools, and institutions? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Let's start the conversation!


Interested in learning more about the referenced study? Be sure to check out their published paper and video abstract here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2014.08.060. The video abstract was especially accessible to the neurosience layman. 

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