This shows a man in a corridor of books.
For encouraging long-term memory or action, stressing people out is less effective. Credit: Neuroscience News

Stealing a Brain Hack: Exploration vs Urgency Shapes Memory and Learning

Summary: Researchers showed that when participants imagined themselves as art thieves scouting a virtual museum for a future heist, they had a better memory of the paintings they observed than those imagining executing an immediate heist.

This difference between exploratory and urgent mindsets could have implications for framing challenges such as vaccine promotion or climate action. The findings showed that the “curious” group, planning for the future, had superior recall, while the “urgent” group was more adept at discerning high-value items.

The study suggests different mindsets can have distinct advantages depending on the situation.

Key Facts:

  1. Imagining themselves as art thieves preparing for a future heist, participants had a better memory of the paintings they viewed compared to those imagining executing a heist immediately.
  2. Participants with an “urgent” mindset were better at identifying higher-value paintings, although they demonstrated weaker recall later.
  3. The researchers believe that learning to strategically apply these different “modes” – urgent or curious – could be beneficial depending on the situation.

Source: Duke University

A simple shift from a high-pressure mindset to a curious one improves people’s memory.

New research from Duke found that people who imagined being a thief scouting a virtual art museum in preparation for a heist were better at remembering the paintings they saw, compared to people who played the same computer game while imagining that they were executing the heist in-the-moment.

These subtle differences in motivation — urgent, immediate goal-seeking versus curious exploration for a future goal — have big potential for framing real-world challenges such as encouraging people to get a vaccine, prompting climate change action, and even treating psychiatric disorders.

The findings appear in the July 25 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Alyssa Sinclair, Ph.D. ’23, a postdoctoral researcher working in the lab of Duke Institute for Brain Sciences director Alison Adcock, Ph.D., M.D., recruited 420 adults to pretend to be art thieves for a day. The participants were then randomly assigned to one of two groups and received different backstories.

“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 said. “Whereas for the curious group, we told them they were a thief who’s scouting the museum to plan a future heist.”

After getting these different backstories, however, participants in the two groups played the exact same computer game, scored the exact same way. They explored an art museum with four colored doors, representing different rooms, and clicked on a door to reveal a painting from the room and its value.

Some rooms held more valuable collections of art. No matter which scenario they were pretending to be in, everyone earned real bonus money by finding more valuable paintings.

The impact of this difference in mindset was most apparent the following day. When participants logged back in, they were met with a pop quiz about whether they could recognize 175 different paintings (100 from the day before, and 75 new ones). If participants flagged a painting as familiar, they also had to recall how much it was worth.

Sinclair and her co-author, Duke psychology & neuroscience graduate student Candice Yuxi Wang, were gratified after they graded the tests to see their predictions had played out­­.

“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 participants who imagined executing the heist.”

Urgent group participants, however, had a different advantage. They were better at figuring out which doors hid more expensive pieces, and as a result snagged more high value paintings. Their stash was appraised at about $230 more than the curious participants’ collection.

The difference in strategies (curious versus urgent) and their outcomes (better memory versus higher-valued paintings) doesn’t mean one is better than the other, though.

“It’s valuable to learn which mode is adaptive in a given moment and use it strategically,” Dr. Adcock said.

For example, being in an urgent mode might be the best option for a short-term problem.

“If you’re on a hike and there’s a bear, you don’t want to be thinking about long-term planning,” Sinclair said. “You need to focus on getting out of there right now.”

Opting for an urgent mindset might also be useful in less grisly scenarios that require short-term focus, Sinclair explained, like prompting people to get a covid vaccine.

For encouraging long-term memory or action, stressing people out is less effective.

“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.”

Sinclair and Wang are now following up on these findings to see how urgency and curiosity activate different parts of the brain. Early evidence suggests that, by engaging the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain region best known for its role in fear memory, “urgent mode” helps form focused, efficient memories.

Curious exploration, however, seems to shuttle the learning-enhancing neurochemical dopamine to the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for forming detailed long-term memories.

With these brain results in mind, Dr. Adcock is exploring how her lab’s research might also benefit the patients she sees as a psychiatrist.

“Most of adult psychotherapy is about how we encourage flexibility, like with curious mode” Dr. Adcock said. “But it’s much harder for people to do since we spend a lot of our adult lives in an urgency mode.”

These thought exercises may give people the ability to manipulate their own neurochemical spigots and develop “psychological maneuvers,” or cues that act similar to pharmaceuticals, Dr. Adcock explained.

“For me, the ultimate goal would be to teach people to do this for themselves,” Dr. Adcock said. “That’s empowering.”

Funding: Support for the research came from a Duke Health Scholars Award from Duke University.

About this learning and memory research news

Author: Dan Vahaba
Source: Duke University
Contact: Dan Vahaba – Duke University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Instructed Motivational States Bias Reinforcement Learning and Memory Formation” by Alyssa H. Sinclair et al. PNAS


Instructed Motivational States Bias Reinforcement Learning and Memory Formation

Motivation influences goals, decisions, and memory formation. Imperative motivation links urgent goals to actions, narrowing the focus of attention and memory. Conversely, interrogative motivation integrates goals over time and space, supporting rich memory encoding for flexible future use.

We manipulated motivational states via cover stories for a reinforcement learning task: The imperative group imagined executing a museum heist, whereas the interrogative group imagined planning a future heist.

Participants repeatedly chose among four doors, representing different museum rooms, to sample trial-unique paintings with variable rewards (later converted to bonus payments). The next day, participants performed a surprise memory test.

Crucially, only the cover stories differed between the imperative and interrogative groups; the reinforcement learning task was identical, and all participants had the same expectations about how and when bonus payments would be awarded.

In an initial sample and a preregistered replication, we demonstrated that imperative motivation increased exploitation during reinforcement learning.

Conversely, interrogative motivation increased directed (but not random) exploration, despite the cost to participants’ earnings.

At test, the interrogative group was more accurate at recognizing paintings and recalling associated values. In the interrogative group, higher value paintings were more likely to be remembered; imperative motivation disrupted this effect of reward modulating memory.

Overall, we demonstrate that a prelearning motivational manipulation can bias learning and memory, bearing implications for education, behavior change, clinical interventions, and communication.

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  1. Still weird how they can’t seem to see past the ends of their noses when it comes to how this can be utilized.
    For Pete’s sake, this is science; it serves a purpose far beyond the confines and limitations of our current society.
    In fact, if we’re not using these things to break those confines & limitations then what’s the point?

    It’s as if the very scientists behind this study are trying to defend their work and their worth by attempting to convince a politician of it’s relevance, instead of recognizing their own stresses and pressures or that of the scientific community or even the education system as a whole.


    Is the only goal of science now to serve those pulling the purse strings?

    This is a wild theory, but now that we have the science to back it up, may I suggest the scientific community explore the truths of all that is out of curiosity, like the Greats that have come before us, rather than purely financial or egotistical reasons?

    Perhaps every single study performed under the stresses, pressures, & confines of any governments, institutions, or even purely capitalistic societies should be denoted as such.

    If funding, survival, and economic profit weren’t limiting factors in the pursuit of science, where would your curiosity have taken you?

    You’ll never know.

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