Provides insight into how people decide if they want to know what the future holds
Doomscrolling is a term used to describe endlessly scrolling through bad news on social media and reading every worrying tidbit that comes up, a habit that unfortunately seems to have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The biology of our brain could play a role in this. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified specific areas and cells in the brain that become active when faced with a choice of learning or hiding information about an adverse aversive event that the person is unlikely to prevent can.
The results published on June 11 in Neuron, could shed light on the processes underlying psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety – not to mention how we all deal with the information overload that is a hallmark of modern life.
“People’s brains are not well equipped to cope with the information age,” said senior author Ilya Monosov, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience, neurosurgery and biomedical engineering. “People keep checking, checking, checking for news, and some of these checks are completely useless. Our modern lifestyles could reshape the circuits in our brain, which have evolved over millions of years, to help us survive in an uncertain and ever-changing world. “
In 2019, while studying monkeys, Monosov lab members J. Kael White, PhD, then a PhD student, and senior scientist Ethan S. Bromberg-Martin, PhD, identified two areas of the brain that were involved in tracking uncertainty about positively anticipated events like Rewards are involved. Activities in these areas fueled the apes’ motivation to find information about good things that could happen.
However, it was not clear if the same circles were involved in seeking information about negatively anticipated events such as punishments. After all, most of them want to know whether a bet on a horse race, for example, is likely to pay off big. Not so with bad news.
“If you give some patients the opportunity to have a genetic test done in the clinic to find out if they have Huntington’s disease, for example, some will have the test done as soon as possible while others refuse.” until symptoms appear, ”said Monosov. “Hospitals see behavior seeking information in some people and terrible behavior in others.”
To find the neural circuitry involved in deciding to seek information about undesirable opportunities, first author Ahmad Jezzini, PhD, and Monosov taught two monkeys to recognize when something unpleasant was about to happen. They taught the monkeys to recognize symbols that suggested they might get an irritating puff of air in their face. For example, the monkeys were first shown a symbol telling them a train might come, but with varying degrees of certainty. A few seconds after the first symbol appeared, a second symbol appeared, which resolved the animals’ insecurity. It told the monkeys that the train would definitely come or not.
The researchers measured whether the animals wanted to know what would happen by waiting for the second signal or by turning their gaze away, or by letting the monkeys choose between different symbols and their results in separate experiments.
Much like humans, the two apes had different attitudes towards bad news: one wanted to know; the other preferred not to. The difference in their attitudes towards bad news was striking because they disagreed on good news. When they were given the opportunity to find out if they were going to get something they liked – a drop of juice – they both consistently chose to find out.
“We found that attitudes toward finding information about negative events can go two-way, even in animals with the same attitude toward positive rewarding events,” said Jezzini, professor of neuroscience. “For us it was a sign that the two attitudes may be guided by different neural processes.”
By accurately measuring neural activity in the brain while the monkeys were confronted with these decisions, the researchers identified an area of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, that separately encodes information about attitudes toward good and bad opportunities. They found a second part of the brain, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which contains individual cells whose activity reflects the monkey’s overall attitude: yes for information about good or bad possibilities vs. yes for information only about good possibilities.
Understanding the neural circuitry that underlies insecurity is a step towards better therapies for people with conditions such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder that are associated with an inability to tolerate insecurity.
“We started this study because we wanted to know how the brain codes our desire to know what our future holds for us,” said Monosov. “We live in a world for which our brain was not developed. The constant availability of information is a new challenge for us. I think understanding the mechanisms of information retrieval is very important for society and for mental health at the population level. “
Co-authors Bromberg-Martin, a senior scientist in the Monosov laboratory, and Lucas Trambaiolli, PhD, of Harvard Medical School, participated in analyzing neural and anatomical data to make this study possible.