Humans

The way our brain values information suggests it can be addictive, like food or drugs

You might be familiar with getting hooked on booze, chocolate, or caffeine. But what about the sweet, sweet thrill of an information overload? Info can act like snacks, money and drugs on our brain, new research has found.

That means we tend to seek out an information hit whether or not it’s going to be useful, just like we might snack when we’re not hungry. You know all those times you check your phone when you’re not expecting any messages? This is what’s happening.

The researchers behind the work say it could offer important insights into how digital addiction works on the brain, whether that’s clicking on questionable headlines or finding yourself tagged in someone else’s social media photos.

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” says neuroeconomist Ming Hsu, from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

“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.”

Together with his UC Berkeley colleague, neuroscientist Kenji Kobayashi, Hsu analysed fMRI brain scans of 37 volunteers while they were engaged in a gambling game. The players had to decide how much to pay to discover the odds on a series of lotteries, before choosing whether to take part in the lottery or not.

In other words, they were being asked to put a value on information. In some cases – if the odds on the lottery turned out to be short – that information was useful. In general though, the volunteers tended to overvalue the extra details they could pay to get.

Lotteries with higher stakes made people more curious about what they could find out and more willing to pay to get the odds – even if that extra information turned out to have no impact on their decision to play a particular lottery or not.

“Our study tried to answer two questions,” says Hsu. “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?”

The economic view of curiosity is that it’s a tool we use to get useful information. The psychological view is that curiosity is innate, a motivation in itself – irrespective of what curiosity gets us in terms of usefulness. In seems both of these were at play in the researchers’ experiment.

The sort of overvaluing of information that the test showed up matches the way we might check the odds on a sports match we have no intention of betting on, for example; or how we might want to know if we’ve got a job offer even if we’re not going to accept it.

Although we must note the very small sample size in this study, the brain scans did show some curious information. The fMRI data indicated that getting information on a lottery’s odds showed increased activation in parts of the brain known to be involved in valuation – the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC).

Via a machine learning analysis, the researchers also showed that the same ‘neural code’ we use to assess monetary reward was used to assess lottery odds as well – so we can convert information into a concrete value, in other words.

As a fascinating next step, this research also ties into previous studies on animals that show information can be a reward in itself, even if we’re not going to get any other tangible benefit from it.

With so much information at our fingertips and more pouring in each day, understanding how we respond to this resource could help us better discern how that affects our relationship with information technology in general – such as why we find phone pings and email alerts so irresistible.

“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,” says Hsu.

The research has been published in PNAS.

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