On June 25th, 2018 we learned about

Our brains reward learning unless we expect the news to be negative

As far as your brain is concerned, this article may be the neurological equivalent of a pastry or lollipop. It’s not that reading these words will tickle your taste-buds, but if you learn something the same reward centers in your brain that give you the sensation of ‘enjoyment’ when eating sugary snacks will be activated. With an incentive like this, it’s hard to imagine then why people ever thought that ignorance could be “bliss,” since we’d be cheating ourselves out of a bit positive neurological feedback by avoiding new information. Why isn’t all news apparently worth knowing?

Nobody likes learning about losing the lottery

To try to figure out when people do and do not enjoy obtaining new information, researchers invited 62 volunteers how much they wanted to know about a laboratory-controlled lottery. Every participant had a chance to win this experimental game, and they were also informed if the odds were good or bad for that particular round of the lottery. The key to the experiment was how people responded to a chance to learn more about each lottery. Most participants were more interested in hearing news about a lottery they thought they had a chance of winning, turning down information about rounds with worse odds.

A little over half of these participants also had their brain activity scanned so that researchers could look for differences in how key anatomy responded while these choices were made. When a participant thought they’d be hearing good news, agreeing to hear more about a lottery correlated with an increase in activity in the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental areas of the brain. When bad news was more likely, these areas did not respond, essentially removing some motivation to obtain new information.

Enjoyment based on expectations

So if people like to pursue good news because it feels good, we also seem to lack a motivation to hear bad news, even beyond the ramifications of the news itself. Indeed, brain scans found that the reward-center activity was largely tied to people’s expectations about the lottery news, and was independent of later reactions to news about actually winning or losing the lottery. This kind of feedback may help explain why people seem to illogically avoid receiving negative but helpful information, such as a diagnosis from a doctor about an ailment. Obviously there will always be bad news in the world, but it seems that shaping our expectations may help it feel pleasant enough to enjoy hearing about.

Source: How your brain decides between knowledge and ignorance, EurekAlert!

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