Research Highlights - August 2019

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A new study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business has found that information acts on the brain’s dopamine-producing reward system in the same way as money or food.  The research paper, titled “Common neural code for reward and information value,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It demonstrates that the brain converts information into the same common scale as it does for money.  It also lays the groundwork for unraveling the neuroscience behind how we consume information — and perhaps even digital addiction.

The researchers 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.

The research is rooted in the study of curiosity and what it looks like inside the brain.  While economists have tended to view curiosity as a means to an end, valuable when it can help us get information to gain an edge in making decisions, psychologists have long seen curiosity as an innate motivation that can spur actions by itself.  For example, sports fans might check the odds on a game even if they have no intention of ever betting.

Sometimes, we want to know something, just to know.

This study tried to answer two questions.

  • First, can we reconcile the economic and psychological views of curiosity, or why do people seek information? And,
  • Second, what does curiosity look like inside the brain?

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 (that is, how much money it could help them win).  But that...

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