A Curious Mindset Helps Improve Memory and Learning

New study suggests a simple shift in mindset can go a long way.


Study, Wellness
Studying paintings with a curious mindset.

(BearFotos / Shutterstock.com)

Everyone has their own set of beliefs, or mindset, that shapes how they see the world. A positive mindset, or growth mindset, can influence a person to set large goals, work at them, and to have successful outcomes.

Therefore, your mindset influences how you feel and think and it can ultimately  lead to your success or failure in any given situation, according to Verywell Mind. In fact, having a growth mindset can actually go a long way in achieving very tangible benefits in terms of memory and learning.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, conducted by two researchers from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, set out to analyze the learning outcomes in a unique experiment when people are in what the researchers called a curious mindset (growth orientated) as opposed to an urgent goal seeking mindset.

The results, according to mindbodygreen showed that the people who had urgent mindsets had an improved performance at that moment but the people who had a curious mindset had better long term memory. In other words, they learned and retained more.

The experiment
Postdoctoral researcher Alyssa Sinclair, PhD, recruited 420 adults to take part in this unusual study, according to Duke Today. The participants were instructed to pretend that they were art thieves and were randomly assigned to two different groups. Each group received their own set of instructions.

“For the urgent group, we told them, ‘You’re a master thief, you're doing the heist right now. Steal as much as you can!’,” Sinclair told Duke Today. “Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who's scouting the museum to plan a future heist.”

Then, the two groups played the same computer game that was scored identically. The participants explored an art museum with four colored doors that represented different rooms. They clicked on the doors to reveal a painting in the room and its value. All the participants earned real bonuses for finding the most valuable paintings.

The next day, when the participants logged into the computer game, they received a pop quiz about whether they recognized the paintings they saw and how much each was worth.

The curious group participants who imagined planning a heist had better memory the next day,” Sinclair said. “They correctly recognized more paintings. They remembered how much each painting was worth. And reward boosted memory, so valuable paintings were more likely to be remembered. But we didn’t see that in the urgent group of participants who imagined executing the heist.”

The Uptake
While the researchers did not judge which mindset was better since both had advantages. They suggested that a short-term urgent mode could be better for solving a short-term problem, like escaping a dangerous situation. But if you are encouraging long-term memory and action, urgent mindsets are not the way to go.

“Sometimes you want to motivate people to seek information and remember it in the future, which might have longer term consequences for lifestyle changes,” Sinclair said. “Maybe for that, you need to put them in a curious mode so that they can actually retain that information.”

This is an important lesson that can be utilized by teachers in schools as well as the work environment. Changing your mindset can make a big difference in future success.

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