The human brain is constantly starving for information: What happens when the brain gorges on useless data?
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The human brain is constantly starving for information: What happens when the brain gorges on useless data?

Just like how it gets easily addicted to junk food and its empty nutrients, the human brain can also get addicted to empty information, say researchers from the University of California (UC), Berkeley. The study, published in the journal PNAS, revealed how the brain becomes addicted to empty information — a phenomenon people could be creating themselves by endlessly scrolling through social media platforms and the internet.

Cheap thrills, empty data

According to co-author researcher Ming Hsu, this addiction can be traced to humans’ modern-day compulsion to seek information.

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” Hsu, an associate professor at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, said. She also added that their study aimed to answer two specific questions: The first being “why do people seek information?” and the second, “what does curiosity look like inside the brain?”

The team started their study by administering functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on volunteers as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to assess a series of lotteries in the game, and then make a choice regarding how much in-game money they wanted to invest in order to uncover information regarding the winning odds.

According to the researchers, some of the game’s lotteries had valuable information, while others had little. They observed that the participants’ curiosity increased when the stakes went higher, as well as when more information was made available – regardless of if that information would eventually turn out to be useless in making gameplay decisions.

Based on this observation, they concluded that the players’ collective behavior was determined by the conflation of economic motivation and psychological, curiosity-driven impulses. In addition, the researchers suspected that people seek information not just because of its value and potential to bring them benefits, but also because they simply want to know.

And at the core of this, the two researchers noted, is the thrill of anticipation.

“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 explained in their study.

This “thrill,” the researchers explained, is linked to dopamine, a hormone secreted by the brain which plays a key role in directing one’s motivations. Upon analyzing the participants’ fMRI scans, the researchers found that accessing information during gameplay activated both the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex — two regions involved in the brain’s reward circuit that produce dopamine. These areas, researchers from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai said, respond to money, food, sex and recreational drugs. According to the study’s researchers, they also found through the scans that the brain appeared to use the same kind of neural code when it came to responding to the amount of in-game money as well as information about the game’s winning odds.

“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,” Hsu said.

A possible implication of this, according to the researchers, is that people can become addicted to the overconsumption of information. (Related: The internet is fueling a rise of new conditions such as cyberchondria and cyberhoarding.)

“The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” Hsu noted, before comparing this development to the consumption of addictive junk food.

“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 warned.

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