According to a new study conducted by researchers from UC Berkeley‘s Haas School of Business, the intake of information activates the brain’s reward system via dopamine every bit as much as other intrinsically enjoyable things like money or food.
“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” said neuro-economist Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu. “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.”
The study is the first to demonstrate that information and money are both processed by way of a ‘common neural code’ which could help researchers better understand how our brains consume (and sometimes over-consume) information.
Given the divergent views on curiosity held by economists and psychologists (the means-to-an-end model versus the intrinsic motivation model), the new study – published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – sought 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 in the brain,” said Hsu.
An experiment where the subjects were asked to play a gambling game and decide how much they were willing to pay for information on the odds of winning has shown that people tend to value it about equally regardless of its usefulness.
The hypothesis put forth by Hsu to explain the results argues that understanding how the brain processes information can only be accomplished by combining the two competing accounts into one – even though we’re not totally blind to the salience of the information sought, we are not too sensitive to it either.
When looking at the fMRI brain scans taken during the experiment, the researchers found that information – regardless of its use-value – activates the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (or VMPFC), both of which are known to be involved in the secretion of dopamine in response to food, money, and most drugs.
Finally, thanks to the machine learning technique called support vector regression, the team was able to determine that our brains use the same neural code for dealing with information in the abstract as it does for actual rewards.
In additional to providing a glimpse under the hood of curiosity, information, and reward, the study could also contribute to our understanding of addictive behaviours online.
“The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” said Hsu. “Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities.”