The brain rewards new information like it does food, money, or drugs

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Are you constantly checking your phone even though you’re not expecting any important messages? Well, blame your brain. According to a new study, digital addiction may be pinned to the way the brain rewards new information, which it seems to value in the same way as money and food.

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” said Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu, a neuroeconomist. “And just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful—what some may call idle curiosity.”

Hsu’s research utilized functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), psychological theory, economic modeling, and machine learning in order to answer two fundamental questions about curiosity. First, why do people seek information, and second, how does curiosity manifest itself inside the brain?

There are two leading theories about the purpose and function of curiosity. Economists tend to view curiosity as a means to an end, helping actors gain information that may improve decision making. Psychologists, on the other hand, see curiosity as an innate motivation that triggers action without the need for any other motive — reading just for the sake of reading or digging in the dirt just to see what lies beneath the soil.

From a neuroscience perspective, Hsu and colleagues analyzed curiosity by scanning the brains of volunteers who had to play a gambling game. Each participant played a series of lotteries where they had the opportunity to pay in order to find out more about the odds of winning. In some lotteries where the stakes were high, this information could be highly valuable — for instance, when what seemed like a longshot was revealed to actually be very likely to happen. However, in other cases, this information was worth very little if the stakes of the lotteries were low.

For the most part, the people in the study behaved rationally from an economic standpoint: they chose to spend money when it made sense, i.e. when it helped them win more. Some choices, however, weren’t rational when seen from an economic standpoint. For instance, the participants tended to overvalue information pertaining to high-priced lotteries. In other words, when the stakes were high, people displayed curiosity in information even when that information had little effect on their decision whether or not to play.

In order to explain the two sets of behaviors, both economic and psychological models had to be taken into account. In other words, people choose to seek out new information for its immediate and actual benefits, as well as for the anticipation of its benefits, whether they were of any use or not.

“Anticipation serves to amplify how good or bad something seems, and the anticipation of a more pleasurable reward makes the information appear even more valuable,” Hsu said in a statement.

The fMRI scans showed that the information about the lotteries’ odds activated the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which are dopamine-producing reward areas activated by food, money, and many addictive drugs. These brain areas were activated no matter if the information was useful and changed a person’s original decision, or not.

Using a machine learning technique called support vector regression, the researchers showed that the brain processes the same neural code for information about lottery odds as it does for money. Hsu says that similarly to how we might convert a steak dinner or a vacation into a monetary value, so can the brain covert curiosity about information using the same common code it uses for less abstract rewards like money.

“We can look into the brain and tell how much someone wants a piece of information, and then translate that brain activity into monetary amounts,” he says.

The new findings might explain people’s tendency to overconsume digital information or why we find notifications of new likes on our social media photos so delicious and irresistible.

“The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” Hsu says. “Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities.

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