This week, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine published work investigating the neural circuits behind information-seeking behavior.
In a clever design, Ilya Monosov and his team taught two monkeys to recognize symbols that foretold either a positive or negative event. By beginning with an uncertain symbol that was subsequently confirmed or denied by a second, they were able to see if the monkeys wanted to know the news.
So basically, the first symbol would mean, “Something good might be coming” (a treat), and both monkeys would watch for the second symbol to learn whether or not the treat really was.
But if the first signal said, “Something bad might be coming” (an annoying puff of air), one of the monkeys waited for the second signal, but the other ignored it, not wanting to learn about the bad news ahead of time.
The researchers then compared the brain activity in the monkeys while this was going on, identifying which areas were involved in making these choices.
Understanding the neurological processes behind information seeking could help develop treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, but has implications for what you’re doing right now, as you scroll through your Facebook feed.
Each swipe up is the addition of another possible positive or negative update, and we become addicted to this casino-style delivery system. Our brains did not evolve for the information age, and it changes our perception of reality in significant ways.
We live in the safest, most tolerant, most prosperous time in human history—there is always more work to do, and always new problems emerging, but the progress we’ve made in the last century is nothing short of amazing. Yet many of those sitting in front of the slot machines at this news casino believe the opposite, and anxiety about the state of the world is at an all-time high. An understanding of the mechanisms underlying this disconnect is important for both society and individual mental health.
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