Neuroscience Study Explains Why We Go Down the Wikipedia Rabbit Hole

Information feels rewarding regardless of how unessential it is to our lives.

bed, night, insomnia

Human consumption is not always the most rational act. We long to overindulge, whether it’s with pizza, alcohol, or information. This last one was the focus of a study published June 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It turns out we seek information because it feels rewarding, even if that information isn’t actually rewarding — I’m looking at you, Michael Caine’s Wikipedia page.

While it’s interesting to know Michael Caine was an investor in a tax avoidance scheme called Liberty, the PNAS study shows that my brain likes that information in the same way it likes the empty calories from junk food. The study demonstrates that because the brain processes information as rewarding, it can sometimes overvalue information.

Study co-author Ming Hsu, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Inverse that this paper sits at the intersection of economics and neuroscience, a point of particular interest for him. In his classes, he teaches students how to calculate the “rational” value of information — but it’s obvious that we choose to seek out information that is less than valuable all the time.

“For example,” Hsu recalls, “the other day while I was waiting for an important email about a funding decision for one of our studies, I found myself refreshing my email every few minutes, even though I know I should be doing something more productive, and modern email programs don’t even need refreshing!”

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It feels rewarding to consume information, even if it's not valuable.

To understand why we hungrily consume information in this way, Hsu and his colleagues decided to focus on the neuroscience of curiosity. To do this, they scanned the brains 37 people while they played a gambling game. Each subject was presented with a lottery situation and asked how much they were willing to pay to find out the odds of winning. In some cases, the information they would pay for would be valuable for making a bet, and in other cases, the information wasn’t worth much.

The majority of subjects made rational gambling choices after reading the helpful information, but they tended to over-value the information in general. And in other cases, while the people were very curious about the information and consumed it all, it still didn’t change how they made their decision. The subjects wanted information, but at times they still dealt with it irrationally.

When the scientists analyzed the fMRI scans, they observed that specific areas in the brain were activated when the participants found out information about the lotteries — the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These areas are known to be in involved in the process of valuation, and they are the same dopamine-producing reward areas that are activated when we consume and receive things like money, food, and drugs.

ventromedial prefrontal cortex
The location of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

In turn, the team realized that the brain evaluates stimuli like information and money with the same neural code. Hsu explains this conclusion is twofold: Information value and monetary value are processed in the same brain reward regions, and these brain regions respond in the same way to information and monetary value.

This is important because brain regions have many functions, and establishing that information increases activity in reward regions is not sufficient to say that information is “rewarding.” The striatum, for example, has a number of motor-related functions as well. But in this study Hsu’s team used a machine learning technique called support vector regression to establish that the brain responds in the same quantitative way to information and money. Hsu says this step is what allowed them to “more firmly conclude that information does carry reward value in the same way as money and other rewards.”

He sees this study as an important step toward understanding information consumption, especially digital media consumption. More studies are need to evaluate that link, but he thinks it’s fair to say that our brain’s processing of information plays a substantial role in why we get into spirals like late night Wikipedia holes or early morning Twitter threads.

“There is a lot of talk in the press about digital addiction, but often the speculation is running ahead of the science,” Hsu says. “Just to use our study as an example: The idea that information is rewarding like money was often treated as the truth even though it was more of an analogy given the evidence at the time.”

“We show that this analogy does have some validity, but this is only one piece of the puzzle.”

Abstract:

Adaptive information seeking is critical for goal-directed behavior. Growing evidence suggests the importance of intrinsic motives such as curiosity or need for novelty, mediated through dopaminergic valuation systems, in driving information-seeking behavior. However, valuing information for its own sake can be highly suboptimal when agents need to evaluate instrumental benefit of information in a forward-looking manner. Here we show that information-seeking behavior in humans is driven by subjective value that is shaped by both instrumental and noninstrumental motives, and that this subjective value of information (SVOI) shares a common neural code with more basic reward value. Specifically, using a task where subjects could purchase information to reduce uncertainty about outcomes of a monetary lottery, we found information purchase decisions could be captured by a computational model of SVOI incorporating utility of anticipation, a form of noninstrumental motive for information seeking, in addition to instrumental benefits. Neurally, trial-by-trial variation in SVOI was correlated with activity in striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, cross-categorical decoding revealed that, within these regions, SVOI and expected utility of lotteries were represented using a common code. These findings provide support for the common currency hypothesis and shed insight on neurocognitive mechanisms underlying information-seeking behavior.