We all remember sitting in a particular class in school, bored out of our minds as the teacher bombarded us with a seemingly meaningless stream of useless facts that we were supposed to somehow remember long enough to pass the inevitable test, after which said facts would most likely be completely forgotten. On the other hand, we all remember at least one classroom experience when we were so turned on by a particular subject that we couldn’t wait to learn more about it, so much so that we may have even — gasp — checked out a book from the library or done some online research not because it was assigned, but just because we wanted to!
So what made the latter experience a direct opposite of the former? Sure, it might have had something to do with natural aptitude or innate interest, but studies have shown there was one factor that played a crucial role in helping you learn and hold onto that material — curiosity. While it may seem obvious, over 50 years of research has shown that curiosity affects our brains in a way that prepares us to learn, helping us to retain information and making the entire experience more rewarding in the process. For this reason, designing our learning experiences in a way that stimulates our audience’s curiosity is crucial to achieving our goal of helping them understand and retain the information we’re charged with conveying, and the best way to accomplish that has been the same across thousands of years of human history — through the use of story.
We all know that when we’re curious about something, whether it’s what inspired our favorite song, why our dog always walks in circles before lying down or a which tropical island would be our ideal vacation destination, we’re much more motivated to research the subject. But the reason why actually involves physiological changes that happen in our brains when we become curious. In a study published in the October 2014 issue of the journal Neuron, researchers at the University of California, Davis, conducted a series of experiments to determine what goes on in our brains when our curiosity is aroused. The researchers created 375 trivia questions aimed at young adults they thought would elicit different levels of curiosity with topics ranging from history, geography and science to movies, music and food. At various points during the study, fMRI scans were conducted to see what was happening in the participants’ brains when they felt especially curious about an answer to a question. The scans revealed that the parts of their brains that regulate pleasure and reward were stimulated, and there was increased activity in the hippocampus, where memories are created. Dopamine — the chemical that gives us a feeling of elation — was also released, giving the participants a kind of “learning high.”
So what does this mean for those of us who are charged with creating engaging learning experiences? It means we have to create them in such a way that will stimulate our audience’s curiosity so they’ll both want to learn it and have an easier time retaining the material we’re responsible for conveying. And the best way to accomplish that is through the use of story. Stories have been a teaching tool for thousands of years. From Aesop’s fables to Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey to the Bible, stories were created not just to entertain, but to convey lessons. That’s because stories make subjects personal for us. They create emotional connections to a topic, which make us feel both curious and invested. We develop empathy for the protagonist and the conflict he or she must overcome while moving through the plot from the inciting incident up to the climax and through to its resolution keeps the reader motivated to discover and learn along the way.
In her book Game Play, author Jami Todd discusses the importance of story in the creation of a successful game, whether its main purpose is to provide enjoyment or stimulate learning.
“… The thing about stories is they are essential, potent, and powerful. …They allow us to learn from the past, prepare and hope for the future and make sense of our lives and the world. …And the potency of a story is determined by what I call the C factor — how often and to what degree the story stimulates curiosity. That’s the thing about story. It’s not the medium. It’s not the character. It’s not the plot or genre. It’s how all these work together to do one thing and one thing only: stimulate curiosity.”
"Say you're watching the Breaking Bad finale," explained Charan Ranganath, one of the UC Davis researchers who worked on the study. “If you're a huge fan of the show, you're certainly really curious to know what happens to its main character, Walter White. You'll undoubtedly remember what happens in the finale, but you might also remember what you ate before watching the episode, and what you did right after.”
As creatives, the lesson for us is that if we want our audiences to learn from our content, we have to stimulate their curiosity, and the best way to accomplish that is tell an engaging story.
 J. Gruber, Bernard D. Gelman, Charan Ranganath. States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. October 2, 2014. Retrieved from Cell Press: https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(14)00804-6
 Jami Todd. Gameplay – Define Your Audience. 2006. Retrieved from Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=4WdXCAAAQBAJ&pg=PP4&lpg=PP4&dq=jami+todd+author+game+play&source=bl&ots=bqKrzqCeaG&sig=6z9yl1CCa_sYNX4PsgjTcC6baTo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjItL6jx6HbAhXVKH0KHeMkCRMQ6AEIQTAI#v=onepage&q=jami%20todd%20author%20game%20play&f=false
 Maanvi Singh. Curiosity: It Helps Us Learn, But Why? October 24, 2014. Retrieved from NPR Online: https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/24/357811146/curiosity-it-may-have-killed-the-cat-but-it-helps-us-learn