Our Brains Process Information the Same Way as Junk Food, Money and Drugs

Information stimulates our dopamine-producing reward system. fizkes/Shutterstock

Do you find yourself aimlessly surfing the internet with no goal in mind, or compulsively checking your phone knowing there really isn’t anything to see? That’s because our brains crave knowledge and consume it with little thought, whether the information really matters to us or not.

A study conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business finds that information stimulates our dopamine-producing reward system, just like junk food, money and drugs.

"To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful," says study author and neuroeconomist Ming Hsu, in a statement. "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."

The results were published in the journal PNAS.

Studying the neuroscience of curiosity

glowing neon outline of person's head and brain
Can't stop looking at clickbait articles or Facebook notifications? This might be the reason why. dierk schaefer [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

The study was motivated by curiosity about curiosity itself. Hsu says, “Our study tried to answer two questions. 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?”

Many economists think of curiosity as purpose-driven or oriented towards a concrete goal; it's a helpful way to make advantageous decisions. In the view of psychologists, curiosity just serves to fulfill itself, to know something for the sake of knowing.

In order to get behind the neuroscience of curiosity, researchers had participants play a gambling game while undergoing brain scans. Participants were shown various lotteries and then prompted to make a decision as to how much money they would pay for information about the winning odds.

In some cases, the information was actually valuable, and in others, the information was less so. But the research showed that participants sought information based both on its benefit and the anticipation of the benefit. Although most choices were based on how much money someone could win, many participants also chose to look at the information regardless of its use. “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 adds.

The neuronal connection between information and money

brain made out of dollar bills
When our brain receives information, it activates the same dopamine-producing reward areas as food, money and many drugs. whiteMocca/Shutterstock

When the brain scans were analyzed, the researchers discovered that information contributing to the knowledge of the game’s winning odds activated the same parts of the brain responsible for valuation: the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). The VMPFC is an area of the brain where the dopamine-producing reward system is stimulated. It’s also where dopamine is released by way of exposure to food, drugs and money.

By utilizing a machine learning technique known as support vector regression, the researchers found that the neural code which corresponds with the brain’s response to money is the same code that can predict how much a person is willing to pay for information. This means as far as our brains are concerned, information can be translated into a dollar value, just like a beach vacation or artwork can.

“We can look into the brain and tell how much someone wants a piece of information, and then translate that brain activity into monetary amounts,” says Hsu.

Insight into our digital addictions

group of people stand in circle looking at their phones
The overconsumption of digital information is a real problem for many of us. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

This could all potentially reveal why so many of us seem to be hooked to our devices, struggling with internet addiction, constantly searching for little bits of information, regardless of their importance.

“Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities,” says Hsu.

Internet addiction has been seen as problematic and a hard habit to kick, and while the research doesn’t directly reveal why we can't stop consuming it, the connection to the brain's rewards system is strong.