Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Science




Köhler, Stefan


States of curiosity, which reflect temporary motivational tendencies to seek out information, play a critical role in learning and memory. Recent work from our lab suggests that metacognitive retrieval experiences related to unsuccessful memory recall can spark curiosity; we have found that feeling-of-knowing (FOK) experiences predict to what extent participants will subsequently seek information they cannot recall. Here, we asked whether autonomic arousal plays a role in the generation of this retrieval-induced curiosity. Further, we asked if subsequent access to the information that cannot be recalled is rewarding and whether autonomic arousal plays a role in the anticipation of reward. We examined pupil size as a marker of autonomic arousal while participants made FOK judgments about previously studied face-name pairs they could not recall. Subsequently, participants were provided limited opportunities to seek out names and asked to rate their level of satisfaction upon viewing selected names. Behaviourally, we replicated our previous findings, with FOK experiences predicting information seeking and found that access to unrecalled information was rewarding as indicated by satisfaction ratings. Our pupillary results showed that as retrieval-induced curiosity increased, so did autonomic arousal, but arousal levels were not linked to subsequent information seeking though were found to play a role in the anticipation of the relief of curiosity. These results suggest that autonomic arousal plays a role in the induction of curiosity, but the motivation to seek missing information may not be driven by autonomic arousal, and furthermore that anticipatory autonomic arousal may reflect anticipation of rewarding information.

Summary for Lay Audience

Curiosity is a pervasive experience that we intuitively understand and associate with learning. Yet, little is understood about how curiosity drives learning. One common curiosity experience involves seeing someone that is recognizable, for instance, at the grocery store, and having a sense that we know them and know their name but cannot bring the name to mind. Interestingly, we often feel we know their name and could even recognize it if presented to us. We often feel frustrated and motivated to find the name and will feel satisfied if we do. Scientists call this a feeling-of-knowing (FOK), which is a sense of knowing information without being able to remember it while feeling like the information would be recognized if seen. Researchers have shown FOK inspires curiosity, essentially motivating people to seek out the missing information. The frustration that is often felt when information cannot be recalled in this type of experience suggests that a state of arousal could be involved. Arousal is the mobilization of energy by a part of the nervous system involved in survival responses. Arousal is also involved in increasing the level of overall stimulation to ready us for a response. Additionally, the satisfaction that is felt when we obtain the missing information in a FOK experience suggests the information may be playing the role of a reward, similar to how food satisfies hunger. This study explored the role of arousal and reward anticipation in curiosity that was induced by FOK experiences. FOK experiences were induced by presenting faces with names, for which the names subsequently could not be recalled. We used pupil dilation response as a measure of arousal. We found arousal was present in curiosity inspired by unsuccessful recall in FOK experiences but that this arousal did not appear to motivate seeking out the missing information. We showed that obtaining missing information was more rewarding when people were more curious about it and that arousal was present when they anticipated obtaining missing information. These results suggest that a desire to obtain the rewarding information is what motivates people to seek out the missing information.