Sunday Scaries

Brain study explains why only some people want to look into the future

“We're living in a world our brains didn't evolve for.”

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Do you want to know what comes next? Some do. In New York City, arguably the medium capital of the world, Wall Street traders meet with psychics in an attempt to peer into the future; there’s enough psychics in town to fill best-of lists. And during Covid-19, the demand for online psychics increased across the country — remote readings seen as a way to have some control over destiny.

It’s hard to say whether or not this phenomenon is uniquely American or specific to this particularly unstable time. The data isn’t there. We do know from a 2017 study that out of 2,000 adults living in Spain and Germany, 85 to 90 percent of people said they would not want to know about upcoming negative events. That may be the difference. Wanting to know the future is one thing; wanting to know what bad stuff is going to happen to you is another.

The tale of two monkeys — It’s a preference scientists recently considered seriously in an effort to figure out why it exists at all. In a study published Friday in the journal Neuron, researchers examined the behavior and brains of two monkeys who were taught something unpleasant might happen to them and gave them the option to know if it was going to happen. In this case, getting a puff of air to the face instead of a juice treat. The scientists measured neuron activity in the monkey brains throughout the experiment.

Ultimately, two striking results emerged from the monkey experiment. The first mirrored human behavior. One of the monkeys wanted to know the bad news; the other didn’t. The research team likens this to people who want to undergo genetic testing to see if a possible illness is in their future versus those who do not. Meanwhile, both monkeys wanted to know what future good news was in store. When given the option to know if a treat was coming later, they took it.

The second result was all of this manifested in the brain as different levels of neuronal activity. The study team discovered two aspects of the brain involved in the decision to know upcoming bad events: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vIPFC). The ACC was found to encode information about good and bad possibilities. Activity in the vIPFC, meanwhile, changed depending on the monkey’s preference for wanting to know upcoming bad news.

“Unlike the ACC, vIPFC also contains a population of neurons that integrated attitudes toward both reward and punishment information to encode the overall preference for information in a bivalent matter,” the team writes. “This cortical network is well-suited to mediate information seeking by integrating the desire to resolve uncertainty about multiple distinct motivational outcomes.”

This suggests a preference for wanting to know upcoming bad news or events is guided by different neural processes depending on one’s brain.

The big picture — This study, the researchers claim, is the first neuronal investigation into informational preferences when it comes to resolving uncertainty around future punishments and rewards. These preferences, they argue, are “distinct and separable at both behavioral and neuronal levels.”

We see this play out in day-to-day differences between people — now we have the science explaining what’s happening on a fundamental level when it occurs. Why do some see preparing for bad news as a strategy for surviving while others argue coping with life’s hardships is easier done once they actually happen?

“We’re living in a world our brains didn’t evolve for.”

This study suggests it’s due to a difference in the brain — although this is one of the first studies to look into the subject, so more data is needed before any definitive claims can be made. But now we know what neural populations anticipate gaining uncertainty-resolving information and which subpopulations integrate attitudes about wanting to know and encoding that overall preference.

"We started this study because we wanted to know how the brain encodes our desire to know what our future has in store for us," senior author Illya Monosov, an associate professor of neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, explains in a statement.

“We're living in a world our brains didn't evolve for. The constant availability of information is a new challenge for us to deal with. I think understanding the mechanisms of information seeking is quite important for society, and for mental health at a population level.”

In other words: What does doomscrolling do to a person whose brain is inclined to constantly search for information about the future? How does this deluge of information sculpt anxiety? The study team hopes this new information can help answer those questions.

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