New information acts on the brain’s reward system in the same way as money or food, according to a study that explains why people can’t stop checking their phones, even when they are not expecting any important messages. The research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that the brain converts information into same common scale as it does for money. It also lays the groundwork for unravelling the neuroscience behind how we consume information — and perhaps even digital addiction.
“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” said Ming Hsu, from University of California, Berkeley in the US. “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 over-consume, information,’ said 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,” Hsu said.
To understand more about the neuroscience of curiosity, the researchers scanned the brains of people while they played a gambling game. Each participant was presented with a series of lotteries and needed to decide how much they were willing to pay to find out more about the odds of winning. In some lotteries, the information was valuable — for example, when what seemed like a longshot was revealed to be a sure thing. In other cases, the information wasn’t worth much, such as when little was at stake. For the most part, the study subjects made rational choices based on the economic value of the information (i.e., how much money it could help them win). However, that did not explain all their choices: People tended to over-value information in general, and particularly in higher-valued lotteries. There are a lot of mysteries in the mind and it is good that attempts are being made to unravel them.