“I have to write a stupid outer space story in class next Tuesday,” says my 11-year-old daughter. “I hate astronomy. It’s so boring.”

“Boring?” I say. “You don’t see the universe as … amazing?”

“Too far away,” she grumbles. “And I just don’t care.” She trudges to her room to examine the assignment’s three reference papers.

My daughter — let’s call her Hailey — is cheerfully giddy 99 percent of the time. But her consternation about a cosmic assignment worries me. I’m one of those science nerds who fantasizes about space travel. I speculate about life on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, and, of course, colonizing Mars. Potentially habitable exoplanets. I am very curious about them — why isn’t Hailey? But then, she’s fascinated by soccer, a passion I find confounding at best.

I wish I could transform my daughter’s interest in astronomy from a tiny dead speck like 2013 RZ53, into a hypergiant star like UY Scuti.

Where’s her curiosity?

What is curiosity, anyway? This childlike state is essential to human consciousness; one 2007 study found that preschool children ask an average of 107 questions per hour. Yet it remains a conceptual curiosity.

• Child development guru Jean Piaget defined curiosity as “the urge to explain the unexpected.”
• Curiosity researcher Daniel Berlyne characterized it as “an optimum amount of novelty, surprisingness, complexity, change, or variety.”
• Research psychologist Susan Engel suggested curiosity “can be understood as the human need to resolve uncertainty.”

Despite so many definitions, curiosity still seems to dance at the edge of understanding. It may be as old as humankind, but only in very recent years have neuroscientists attempted to understand exactly how it works.

The inquisitive ones

Meandering through the vaults of pubmed.gov in search of studies that would help me crack the code on my daughter’s curiosity, I learn that inquisitiveness is highly predictive of intelligence. A 2002 study that identified “high stimulation seeking” (meaning highly curious) 3-year-olds found that at age 11, they had higher academic grades, superior reading ability, and IQ scores 12 points higher than their less inquisitive peers. Curiosity also helps us maintain our intelligence — by protecting against mental decline. A study of older Minnesotans published in JAMA Neurology, found that keeping curiosity alive reduces Alzheimer’s risk and delays its onset by 8.7 years.

I also learned that curiosity has a powerful emotional component. It works on our pleasure center: the dopamine rush delivered by curiosity resembles the rush obtained when we win at the racetrack, inhale nicotine, or gobble chocolate. But the curiosity habit is more fragile than, say, a nicotine addiction. In her recent book The Hungry Mind Susan Engle chronicles how children begin losing curiosity at a relatively young age: “When they’re between the ages of 5 and 12, their curiosity diminishes.” Why? Engel suggests that childhood curiosity diminishes because of lack of listening support from adults.

Kathy Koch, author of How Am I Smart? A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligence echoes this view: “Too many children tell me they stop asking questions because parents and teachers respond too often with statements like these: ‘You don’t need to know that.’ ‘Look it up yourself.’ ‘That’s not important.’ … Not allowing children to ask questions and not taking their questions seriously are easy ways we shut down the logic-smart intelligence.”

Engel also notes that the decline of curiosity coincides with schooling. “[Curiosity] that is ubiquitous in toddlers is hard to find at all in elementary school,” she says.

A recent breakthrough in curiosity research piques my interest. At the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California at Davis psychologist Matthias Gruber studies how the brain files long-term memories of events.

His recent study with researchers Bernar Gelman and Charan Ranganath — published in Neuron — found that curiosity changes the brain in ways that enhance learning. The study tested the memory of participants on a series of topics that they had rated in regards to their curiosity. Participants also underwent MRIs during parts of the study. Basically, when the brain’s curiosity was triggered, thereby releasing dopamine, the person later could remember “incidental information.” In other words, participants didn’t just remember more about the topics they were curious about, but they remembered more information about unrelated topics when their brain had recently experienced a spike in curiosity.

The magic spark

The research has convinced me that curiosity is the magic spark I need to ignite in my weary little girl, but how?

Hailey is oddly radiant Tuesday, like the star Canopus in the southern hemisphere. Today she has to write the dreaded “stupid outer space story,” so I thought she’d be miserable, but she dashes off smiling before I can question her.

With Matthias Gruber working only 75 minutes from my home, I meet with him at a Starbucks in Davis, CA, to chat about his research. His PhD was on long-term memory encoding; his determination to comprehend the neurology of memory led him to his present investigation of curiosity.

“We looked at the neuro-correlates of curiosity – and we found that dopamine, the ‘wanting system,’ is only active when you’re in the curious state,” Gruber explained.

Research suggests that dopamine should now be more associated with our need to discover things, of wanting to know more, than making us feel pleasure. It keeps us motivated. Dopamine drives our goal-directed behavior. It causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It may have kept cavemen alive.

When asked if dopamine and curiosity have implications for education, Gruber says he assumes that good teachers are already doing it instinctively. “If they turn on the ‘wanting system’ in their classrooms, the hippocampus works better,” he explains, referring the part of the brain associated with long-term memory storage. “If teachers find a way to inspire each student by telling them something every student wants to know, they will all remember the incidental information. Once the ‘wanting system’ is turned on, it remembers everything.”

I find myself explaining that I was an odd student who got either an A+ or a C- because I was either wildly interested in the subject, or paralytically bored. “How would you teach math so that it’s not boring?” I ask. “That was one of my C- subjects.”

“Have the students solve complicated, world real-life problems,” he suggests.

When asked what sparked his curiosity about psychology, he smiles.

“I had an excellent professor who taught memory,” he recalls. “Dr. Karl-Heinz Baeuml at University of Regensburg. He sparked my curiosity and warmed up my hippocampus. Learning should be a ‘flow experience.’ ”

“My daughter doesn’t like astronomy,” I blurt out, suddenly. “She says ‘outer space is too big.’ What’s wrong with her?”

Matthias doesn’t hesitate. “Her teacher,” he suggests, “needs to find a little detail in astronomy that fascinates her, something to spark her. Once she catches fire, she will love the subject.”

Driving home, I wonder about what made me love astronomy. What sparked my interest? Then I flash on a memory: Gazing at the stars after eating s’mores at Boy Scout campouts in the Sierras and listening to a golden-tongued counselor point out Orion’s Belt.

Universe downsized; curiosity upsized

Arriving home, I discover that Hailey is glowing, like Venus in early summer. “How did you like writing the astronomy paper?” I ask.

“Great!” she enthuses. “You know what comets are?”

I open my mouth, but she launches into a breathless, extemporaneous lecture.

“Comets are giant snowballs full of rocks, when they get too close to the sun the snow melts so if the pebbles smash into our atmosphere they burn up as shooting stars, but there are other ways to make space pebbles too, space is full of pebbles, if asteroids hit each other little chips fly off and asteroids do hit each other all the time because they’re spinning around the sun in different circles at different speeds and the real name for shooting stars is meteors, but if they don’t burn up and land on Earth, they’re called meteorites and the biggest one weighs 60 tons and it’s made of 84 percent iron and 16 percent nickel!”

On and on she yammers, her brain swirling with wonder like a galaxy, expelling words excitedly like a solar plume, snagging my attention in her gravitational orbit. Obviously her “wanting system” had been turned on.

We went outside and looked at the waxing crescent of the moon.

“What changed?” I ask Hailey. “Astronomy bored you.”

“Astronomy seemed impossible,” she confesses. “The speed of light? Billions of stars? The temperature of the sun? I don’t get it. Too big. But if a comet is just a flying snowball, I like that. That makes sense. Can we see a meteorite someday soon?”

“There’s a great collection at UCLA,” I tell her. “In Los Angeles, where your uncle lives. Hundreds of them!”

“Can we go see them, pleeese?”

I quietly thank those on-point reference articles from her teacher for charting a pathway from my daughter’s fifth grade brain into the cosmos. With her curiosity awakened her learning spree will take off like a rocket.

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