Humans are naturally curious beings. We constantly seek to learn, explore, and understand. However, curiosity may not always be a positive feature.
The popular saying, “Curiosity killed the cat” refers to seeking knowledge to the point of putting oneself in danger.
Although not exactly in the sense that this saying connotes, humans’ modern-day compulsion to seek information can have negative effects.
As we scroll greedily through social media or peruse random, bite-sized articles about nothing in particular, we may be feeding the equivalent of empty calories to our brains.
Or, to put it a different way, our brains may be addicted to unvaluable information on which we snack insatiably.
Why is this the case? In a new study, two researchers — from the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the Haas School of Business, at the University of California, Berkeley — have found that the search for information accesses the same neural code as the search for money. Their findings appear in the journal PNAS.
“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” says co-author and associate professor Ming Hsu, Ph.D.
“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.” – Ming Hsu, Ph.D.
Seeking information for information’s sake
According to Hsu: “Our study tried to answer two questions. First, can we reconcile the economic and psychological views of curiosity, or, why do people seek information? Second, what does curiosity look like inside the brain?”
For this purpose, the researchers started by administering functional MRI (fMRI) scans as volunteers played a gambling game. In this game, participants had to assess a series of lotteries and then make a choice, deciding how much money they wanted to invest in order to uncover more information about winning odds.
Some lotteries featured more valuable information, while others held very little information. The participants mostly made logical choices, considering the economic value of the information in each lottery — with value referring to how much money the given information could help them win in the game.
However, there was a catch. When there were higher stakes, people’s curiosity about information increased, even when that information was unhelpful in making gameplay decisions.
Based on this observation, the researchers thought that the players’ behavior was likely explained by a conflation of economic motivation and psychological (curiosity-driven) impulses.
Thus, they suspected that people seek information not just because it has value and can bring them benefits but also because we simply want to know, regardless of whether we intend to use the information or whether it is useful at all. At the core of this is the thrill of anticipation, the two authors note.
“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 explains.
Information overload is ‘just like junk food’
When the researchers went on to analyze the fMRI scans, they saw that accessing information during the gambling game activated the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — two regions involved in the brain’s reward circuit.
These areas also respond to money, food, and recreational drugs, and they produce dopamine, a hormone and chemical messenger that plays a key role in directing motivation.
The researchers also found that the brain appeared to use the same kind of neural “code” when responding to amounts of money and information about winning odds in the game.
“We were able to demonstrate for the first time the existence of a common neural code for information and money, which opens the door to a number of exciting questions about how people consume, and sometimes overconsume, information,” says Hsu.
The fact that there is a common code for monetary value and information and that it activates brain regions involved in the reward cycle could mean that people might actually get addicted to information.
This could have implications as to why we overconsume information, such as when we are unable to stop checking notifications on our phones.
“The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” notes Hsu.
While, throughout the past, the human race hungrily sought information to maximize the odds of survival, easy access to useless information may now lead to an overload.
“Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities,” Hsu warns.