Exploring the links between intelligence and curiosity

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s good for the student.

The authors of a 2011 study published in Perspectives in Psychological Science found that curiosity is a big part of academic performance. In fact, personality traits like curiosity seem to be as important as intelligence in determining how well students do in school.
Exploring the links between intelligence and curiosity
Smarts aren’t the whole story

Intelligence is important to academic performance, but it’s not the whole story. Everyone knows a brilliant kid who failed school, or someone with mediocre smarts who made up for it with hard work, so psychological scientists are looking at factors other than intelligence that make some students do better than others.

One of those is conscientiousness — basically, the inclination to go to class and do your homework. People who score high on this personality trait tend to do well in school. “It’s not a huge surprise if you think of it, that hard work would be a predictor of academic performance,” says Sophie von Stumm of the University of Edinburgh in the UK.

von Stumm and her coauthors wondered if curiosity might be another important factor. “Curiosity is basically a hunger for exploration,” von Stumm says. “If you’re intellectually curious, you’ll go home, you’ll read the books. If you’re perceptually curious, you might go traveling to foreign countries and try different foods.”

Both of these, she thought, could help you do better in school.

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The curious case of the meta-analysis

The researchers performed a meta-analysis, gathering the data from about 200 studies with a total of about 50,000 students. They found that curiosity did, indeed, influence academic performance. In fact, it had quite a large effect, about the same as conscientiousness. When put together, conscientiousness and curiosity had as big an effect on performance as intelligence.

von Stumm wasn’t surprised that curiosity was so important. “I’m a strong believer in the importance of a hungry mind for achievement, so I was just glad to finally have a good piece of evidence,” she says. “Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners. That is very important.”

Employers may also want to take note: a curious person who likes to read books, travel the world, and go to museums may also enjoy and engage in learning new tasks on the job.

“It’s easy to hire someone who has the done the job before and hence, knows how to work the role,” von Stumm says. “But it’s far more interesting to identify those people who have the greatest potential for development, i.e. the curious ones.”



A molecular link between intelligence and curiosity

Scientists from the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto even discovered a molecular link between intelligence and curiosity, which may lead to the development of drugs to improve learning.

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In a paper, published during 2009 in Neuron, Dr John Roder, Senior Investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, and Bechara Saab, PhD candidate at the Lunenfeld, studied the interaction of two proteins in a small region of the brain called the dentate gyrus (part of the hippocampus, which plays a role in long-term memory and spatial navigation).

For the study, the neuronal calcium sensor-1 (NCS-1) — a protein which is known to affect the memory of worms and is linked to bipolar and schizophrenia in people — was increased by one-and-a-half fold specifically in the dentate gyrus of mouse models. This modest overexpression increased the ability of brain cells to change how they communicate with each other and gave the mice superior memory in complex tasks and a significant increase in exploratory behavior (curiosity).

Because the exploratory behavior was only altered in safe environments, Dr Roder and Saab believe they have discovered a region of the brain that generates curiosity and a model for how brain activity leads to curiosity.

The researchers also discovered that both curiosity and spatial memory were impaired when a benign drug blocked the NCS-1 protein from binding to the dopamine type-2 receptors (a major target of anti-psychotics) in the dentate gyrus.

“Now that we know that some of the molecules and brain regions that control learning and memory also control curiosity, we can go back to the lab and design drugs that may improve cognition in humans — that’s the potential benefit for the future,” explains Saab. “Immediately, however, we can put into use the knowledge that fostering curiosity should also foster intelligence and vice versa.”

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