Do you can’t stop checking your Smartphone, even if you are not waiting for any important message? Do you enter the online newspapers several times to check the news? Are you curious to know more about your neighbor or co-worker, even though you have no intention of relating to them? Do you “check” what others share in their social networks just out of curiosity? Maybe you are an infoholic!
It’s your brain’s fault! Researchers at the University of Berkeley discovered that information acts on the reward system of the brain in the same way as food or drugs.
Sometimes, we just want to know
We are curious. It’s not a secret. Curiosity encourages us to explore and discover. But perhaps we are much more curious and tattlers than we would be willing to admit. And maybe that curiosity can make us get saturated with useless information. Or that we get stuck in a search loop in which we never go into action, stunned by the number of options, the number of factors to consider and the new information that appears every day and contradicts the previous one, generating chaos and eliminating the space for the necessary reflection.
These researchers scanned people’s brains while they were immersed in a game of betting. Each participant received a series of lottery tickets and had to decide how much he was willing to pay to get more information about the odds he had of winning. In some cases, the information was valuable, as when there was a lot of money at stake, but in other cases that information did not contribute anything, as when there was little money at stake.
There was a trend: participants tended to overestimate the importance and value of information. And the greater the risk or the likelihood of winning, the more curiosity about that information increased, although in reality this had no influence on their decisions. I mean, they just wanted to know, for the sake of knowing.
Researchers believe that this behavior indicates that we not only look for information that is beneficial or valuable for some reason, but we like to obtain information in a general sense, whether we use it or not. It’s like wanting to know if we will receive a job offer, even if we don’t intend to accept it.
“Anticipation helps us determine how good or bad something can be. Anticipating a more pleasurable reward will make the information look more valuable than it really is”, the researchers said.
The brain scans revealed that the information activated the areas of the brain related to the reward, those that cause a release of dopamine and that are also activated in cases of addiction.
They concluded that “For the brain, information is its own reward, regardless of whether it is useful or not … In the same way that our brain likes the empty calories of junk food, information makes us feel good, even if it’s not useful.”
More information is not always better
We tend to think that the more information, the better. But it’s not always that way. Sometimes accumulating a lot of information can be detrimental to analysis, reflection and critical thinking. Consuming information as a drug implies that there is no processing of it, so it is useless.
In a world that bombards us with information constantly, we must keep it in mind or we risk losing ourselves in a sea of news and content specifically created to “dope” us, not to grow or encourage us to reflect. We can really become infoholics.
In fact, a previous study conducted at the University of California revealed that social networks activate the amygdala and the striatum, brain structures involved in emotions and the anticipation of rewards, which are the same that are activated in addictions.
The desire to obtain more and more information, without doing anything profitable with it, generates the same impulsive behavior that is seen in addictions, silencing the inhibitory system that allows us to regain control.
Of course, that does not mean we should stop informing ourselves. It means that we must be critical with the information we consume and, above all, that we need to pass it through a sieve. Is it really worth losing so much time of our life consuming information that we will forget the next day?
Kobayashi, K. &i Hsu, M. (2019) Common neural code for reward and information value. PNAS; 116 (26); 13061-13066.
Turel, O. et. Al. (2014) Examination of neural systems sub-serving facebook «addiction». Psychol Rep; 115(3): 675-695.