Summary: Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute has used advanced MRI technology to identify brain regions that assess uncertainty and drive curiosity.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute used advanced MRI technology to observe brain activity during moments of curiosity, identifying specific brain regions involved.
  2. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, highlights that curiosity arises from brain regions assessing uncertainty in visually ambiguous situations.
  3. Researchers found an inverse relationship between confidence and curiosity: higher confidence correlated with lower curiosity and vice versa.


Groundbreaking research from Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute has, for the first time, observed the brain’s response during moments of curiosity using advanced MRI technology. This study, detailed in the Journal of Neuroscience, identifies specific brain regions that assess uncertainty in visually ambiguous situations, sparking curiosity.

Brain’s Response to Uncertainty

The study, which employed functional MRI (fMRI), identifies specific brain regions that assess uncertainty in visually ambiguous situations, sparking curiosity. “Curiosity has deep biological origins,” says Jacqueline Gottlieb, PhD, principal investigator at the Zuckerman Institute and professor of neuroscience at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

She emphasizes curiosity’s evolutionary role in survival, noting that humans uniquely explore for knowledge rather than just for material or survival rewards. “This exploration leads to much of our creativity,” Gottlieb adds.

Gottlieb collaborated with Michael Cohanpour, PhD, a former graduate student at Columbia and current data scientist at dsm-firmenich, and Mariam Aly, PhD, now an acting associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Together, they utilized fMRI to study the brains of 32 volunteers, measuring changes in blood-oxygen levels as participants viewed images. The fMRI technology enabled the scientists to precisely record the activity of different brain regions based on oxygen consumption.

How Uncertainty Drives Curiosity

Using texforms—images of objects like walruses and tanks distorted to various degrees—the researchers gauged participants’ confidence and curiosity. They discovered an inverse relationship: higher confidence meant lower curiosity and vice versa. This insight into the brain’s response to uncertainty reveals the underlying mechanisms driving the desire to explore and learn.

This pioneering research not only enhances the understanding of human curiosity but also highlights the capabilities of MRI technology in exploring cognitive functions. As the exploration of the brain’s intricacies continues, studies like this underscore the profound connection between curiosity and human innovation.