Learning Lab

Harnessing Interest is Key to Building a Better Brain

By Amy Brann

Interest is a curious word. 

Interest – the idea of being “interested” in something – plays a fundamental role in human nature. In fact, to some, it signals a cornerstone of human development – an inner drive that motivates us to seek out novelty, to learn something new, or to embrace change.

From a neuroscience perspective, interest is probably closest to emotion, although not in its strictest sense as it clearly has a cognitive – thinking – element to it. What’s more, interest is intertwined with concepts such as curiosity and enthusiasm forming a triad of positive motivation which is fueled by an in-built personal desire for self-improvement.

But despite its prominence, the feeling of being “interested” in something hasn’t been that widely researched in the neuroscientific literature. But when you do look at interest from a neuroscientific perspective what does it look like? Does it confirm what we intuitively know based on our own experience of interest?

Interest promotes learning.

To start with, research shows that interest helps to learn. For example, studies have shown that reading interesting texts, as opposed to less interesting ones, promotes the use of deeper text-processing strategies, results in longer engagement with the text, and ultimately leads to better comprehension and memory formation. This is why taking the time to make sure what you write, whether in a project report or a memo, sounds interesting is key to ensuring that your reader remembers what you’ve said.

This is also why interest is so important for the growth of your knowledge, competence and expertise.

It is much more effortful to become good at something you aren’t interested in, only because your neural pathways for learning aren’t as tuned into the material that you need to know to hit that next career milestone. Sticking within your interests, finding unusual ways to shift something that at first might seem dull to become more interesting, or just by knowing that you’re going to have to put in some extra effort, can all help you to overcome these potential hurdles.

Interest promotes approach motivation and perseverance

As mentioned above, interest’s central function is to motivate curiosity and exploration in response to new and uncertain things. This form of approach motivation comes hand in hand with other cognitive assets, namely focused attention and perseverance. But whilst some forms of motivation arise from external sources, interest is central to intrinsic motivation – motivation from within. What’s more, interest is more important than enjoyment in predicting how people will engage with something. For example, studies have shown that when people are given a choice between two images, their selection is driven more strongly by how attractive the picture is, rather than by how pleasing it is. Other studies have confirmed this by showing that their interest rather than their enjoyment determines the time people spend listening to or viewing something. So whilst it is essential to make sure your presentation is enjoyable and fun, it is the amount that it interests your audience that it the real selling point.

Interest helps avoid negative mental states

We all know what it feels like to be bored, confused or frustrated. These negative feelings get in the way of clear thinking and job satisfaction. They are also avoidance states which prevent you from achieving your goals. And the antidote to avoidance? Approach. And this is where interest has a role to play – by serving as an approach oriented counterweight to these negative feelings, instead of promoting a desire to learn and explore. So next time you find yourself in one of these negative states, seek out something that interests you, even for 5 minutes, to reset your brain. This can help to force you out of a demotivated state of mind so that you can then continue with your work feeling more refreshed and prepared to face your next challenge. This is also why employing interest enhancing strategies – think “how can I make this boring task more interesting to me” – can help you get through a boring activity and increase your motivation.

Interest not only uses up cognitive resources, but it also replenishes them

Finally, evidence suggests that interest is self-replenishing. In other words, being interested in something not only uses up precious cognitive resources (and to a greater extent than emotions like happiness which don’t require as much effort or persistence) but also promotes the replenishment of these resources. And similar to how nature can have therapeutic effects on the brain, so too can interest, due to its ability to promote positive feelings such as emotional satisfaction. Without this function, interest could only promote motivation when you had sufficient mental resources to hand, therefore limiting its potential. 

Harnessing interest to be powerful not frivolous

Interests are what set us apart as individuals. Each of us has our own set of interests which make us unique. And the role that interest plays in promoting motivation, attention and perseverance, highlights how important it is to know where your interests lie. This shows you where you can capitalise on your potential for personal growth and is something that you will only really find out by trying as many different things as possible. And whilst some interests can cause us to become sidetracked and continue along frivolous paths that might seem interesting but aren’t much value to an organisation, harnessing interest for its core benefits is key to building a better brain, for the benefit of the individual and the organisation.

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