Is the sky blue? What makes the wind blow? How do I fix the sink tap?

Does curiosity lead you? Or do you steer away from asking questions?

Curiosity and The Brain

The Greater Good Science Centre has published several articles on how curiosity can lead to a happier life. Some of the benefits of curiosity include:

Knowing that curiosity positively impacts wellbeing, the question becomes, how does curiosity work in the brain? And can we harness this knowledge to enhance our curiosity in life to foster greater wellbeing? I believe the answer is Yes.

In a new research paper entitled “Brain Mechanism of Curiosity Unraveled”, researchers have found curiosity’s own path in the brain, giving us unique insight into how curiosity converts into action.

I had to see how this works and, more importantly, how it may impact wellbeing.

Defining Curiosity

When we look up the word curiosity in the dictionary, the definition uses words such as desire, interest or eagerness. These definitions outline qualities relating to learning, inquisitive thinking, exploration, and investigation.

What we’re really defining here is our innate motivational drive underlying our novelty-seeking behaviours. We use our curiosity to motivate us to answer questions, find solutions, learn, and investigate for understanding.

Curiosity is the word we use when we engage in novelty-seeking behaviour driven by attention and motivation.

The science around novelty-seeking behaviours has been difficult for scientists to parse out from other goal-directed animalistic behaviours such as hunger and appetitive aggression. But a new study has uncovered the curiosity path throughout the brain that converts curiosity to action in mice models.

Not only is it fascinating, but by understanding how the curiosity path works in a mouse brain, we may be able to take a wellbeing perspective and think about curiosity similarly in our mind to foster behaviour change. Let’s first look at the science.

The Science

In a study published in Science Magazine, researchers in the Netherlands found “a whole path of multiple brain regions” that converted curiosity into action in mice. Specifically, a region called the Zona Incerta is responsible for this novelty-seeking behaviour.

The Curiosity Cells

In the paper, scientists found specific neurons active during deep investigation (versus shallow exploration) – what we would view as curiosity behaviours. What’s interesting is that when those cells were “inhibited” or deactivated, they found that “depth and duration of investigation [had] decreased”. Meaning the level of the mouse’s curiosity was reduced, resulting in decreased curiosity behaviours.

That finding allowed the scientists to attribute the behaviour of curiosity to a specific region in the brain and to particular cells.

The Curiosity Cells Connect and Convert

Although the Zona Incerta is where the novelty-seeking cell activity was found in the brain, the scientists are keen to point out that by using several techniques, multiple brain regions are active, creating a path, converting curiosity into action. There is never one brain region responsible for specific behaviours. You are more complex than that.

“It is the first time that this path has been described. Now we can begin to understand, for example, how curiosity sometimes wins over the urge for security, and why some individuals are more curious than others.”

— J. Alexander Heimel, Author of the Study

Connecting Curiosity

The Zona Incerta is where the curiosity cell activity occurs, but these cells reach out to an area called the prelimbic cortex (PL) in mice, which is the area for attention shifting and modulation of attention.

The scientists then point out that they found a new population of “inhibitory neurons” in the Zona Incerta. These neurons receive input signals from the prelimbic cortex and then automatically, in one single neural synapse, project them to the 1PAG.

(Just a reminder, a “synapse” is a junction that brings about information transfer between neurons.)

And what’s the PAG? The PAG is also known as the central gray. It’s the brain region responsible for “autonomic function, motivated behaviour and behavioural responses to threatening stimuli.”

Converting Curiosity

What this means is that the inhibitory neurons in the Zona Incerta are in control of allowing or shutting off the information messages from the prelimbic cortex to the behavioural response engine of the PAG.

It’s the “activation and deactivation of these neurons, respectively, [that] increased and decreased [the mouses’] depth and duration of investigation” or novelty-seeking behaviours. CURIOSITY!

“We found a new subpopulation of inhibitory neurons in ZIm expressing tachykinin 1 (TAC1) that monosynaptically receive PL inputs and project to lPAG. Optogenetic activation and deactivation of these neurons, respectively, increased and decreased depth and duration of investigation.”

What’s the Impact?

Although this study used mice models, and curiosity behaviour in humans is still unknown, these findings work alongside another study that implicates the Zona Incerta’s arousing curiosity in monkeys. This study connects curiosity to the visual system, where the whole process starts. (Ogasawara et al., 2021)

With this information, we can start to build a picture of the multiple brain regions active in converting curiosity into action. They can also give us clues into how our curiosity leads us to our behaviour.

Linking Behavioural Science to the Neuroscience

By understanding neuroscience mechanisms, Scientists can apply new research to help those with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and others.

For me, neuroscience also underpins Behavioural science by providing the brain mechanisms (and potential implications) that can lead to behavioural change.

So, by understanding the mechanisms of how curiosity works in mice and monkey’s brains, we can then take that knowledge and APPLY it to our thinking and our behaviours for positive change.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, curiosity is a relatively vague concept in psychology. But here, with this neuroscience insight underpinning the mechanisms, even if it’s just mice at the moment, I believe we can begin to link psychological practices with neuroscience — with wellbeing.

Some Takeaways

Here’s how these neuroscience findings can inform us and help us link them to a psychological and behavioural level:

  1. The brain CAN accomplish behavioural flexibility. Curiosity is a reward processing process that can drive us to feel satisfied and enhance our wellbeing.

“Our data uncover a network of primate brain areas that regulate novelty-seeking. The behavioral and neural distinctions between novelty-seeking and reward-processing highlight how the brain can accomplish behavioral flexibility, providing a mechanism to explore novel objects.” — Ogasawara et al., 2021

I know that it is MY motivational driver for all that I do for work and my family life. Using the phrase, “what’s happening right now?” when things are chaotic helps my mind focus (through attention) on curiosity.

2. By utilising curiosity more in our lives, we potentially strengthen our ability to engage in deep investigation.

“Optogenetic activation of ZImGAD2 axons into lateral periaqueductal gray (lPAG) increases the arousal level, whereas chemogenetic deactivation of these axons decreases duration and depth of investigation. Calcium fiber photometry of these axons showed high activity during deep investigation and no significant activity during shallow investigation, suggesting a thresholding mechanism.”

  • This quote suggests that there may be a threshold mechanism for shallow curiosity. (axons showed high activity during deep investigation and no significant activity during shallow investigation, suggesting a thresholding mechanism) Meaning, the lack of novelty-seeking has a threshold.
  • Then deep investigation or curiosity may impact and arouse our synapses. (activation of ZImGAD2 axons into lateral periaqueductal gray (lPAG) increases the arousal level, whereas chemogenetic deactivation of these axons decreases duration and depth of investigation) Meaning, our curiosity arouses the function of the PAG — our automatic region.

Significantly if deep activation increases the arousal level of the PAG, which is the area associated with “autonomic function, motivated behaviour and behavioural responses to threatening stimuli”, then couldn’t engaging more with curiosity become more automatic?

Is it possible to connect a therapy such as ACT (which fosters psychological flexibility) to potentially change the underlying mechanisms of brain activation?

(Psychological flexibility is the ability to stay in the present moment to choose your behaviour, instead of reacting to emotions, thoughts or bodily sensations.)

More Curiosity Please

This new information, this ability to find potential connections in both mice and monkey brains and then one day possibly linking these findings to human behaviour and potentially providing support for therapies that increase wellbeing… well, it is all fascinating to me and has aroused my Zona Incerta neurons.

What do you think?

Thank you so much for reading and engaging in my curiosity.

Now use your curiosity and do some deep investigation in whatever you find interesting. Go get ‘em!

 

References:

Mehran Ahmadlou, Janou H. W. Houba, Jacqueline F. M. van Vierbergen, Maria Giannouli, Geoffrey-Alexander Gimenez, Christiaan van Weeghel, Maryam Darbanfouladi, Maryam Yasamin Shirazi, Julia Dziubek, Mejdy Kacem, Fred de Winter, J. Alexander Heimel. A cell type-specific cortico-subcortical brain circuit for investigatory and novelty-seeking behaviourScience, 2021; 372 (6543): eabe9681 DOI: 10.1126/science.abe9681

Takaya Ogasawara, Fatih Sogukpinar, Kaining Zhang, Yang-Yang Feng, Julia Pai, Ahmad Jezzini, Ilya E. Monosov. Neuronal mechanisms of novelty seeking. bioRxiv 2021.03.12.435019; do: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.12.435019

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