ST. LOUIS, — Reading about the world’s “impending doom” is a weird hobby for many and can be incredibly addicting as people browse through the internet. Now, researchers have discovered the part of the brain that dictates why some people can’t stop looking at these nerve-wracking reports.
Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say how people cope with the uncertainty of what the future holds could come down to the biology of their brains. Endlessly scrolling through bad news on social media, or “doomscrolling,” has become increasingly common during the COVID-19 pandemic as people remain indoors during the crisis.
While some people cannot help themselves and have to read every last bit of information, others prefer to avoid bad news all together. Now, scientists have discovered the reason some people prefer not to know.
“People are constantly checking, checking, checking for news, and some of that checking is totally unhelpful,” says associate professor Ilya Monosov in a university release. “Our modern lifestyles could be resculpting the circuits in our brain that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive in an uncertain and ever-changing world.”
Brain circuits also seek out good news
In 2019, researchers examined monkeys and found two parts of their brains had connections with uncertainty towards positive future events. Brain activity in these areas drove the monkeys’ motivation to uncover information about good things which were likely to happen in the future. However, it wasn’t clear whether these “brain circuits” were also involved in anticipating negative events such as punishment.
“In the clinic, when you give some patients the opportunity to get a genetic test to find out if they have, for example, Huntington’s disease, some people will go ahead and get the test as soon as they can, while other people will refuse to be tested until symptoms occur,” Monosov adds. “Clinicians see information-seeking behavior in some people and dread behavior in others.”
To find out whether this was the case, the researchers trained two monkeys to recognize symbols which indicate something unpleasant was about to happen. The team showed the monkeys different symbols. In some cases, the animals received an irritating puff of air to the face.
In other cases, the animals saw a symbol which suggested the blast might be coming, followed by another which confirmed whether it was or was not. While some of the animals waited to see the second symbol, others turned away, suggesting they did not want to know what was coming. Researchers considered the findings “striking” since the monkeys had similar reactions when it came to positive events.
“We found that attitudes toward seeking information about negative events can go both ways, even between animals that have the same attitude about positive rewarding events,” says first author Dr. Ahmad Jezzini. “To us, that was a sign that the two attitudes may be guided by different neural processes.”
Revealing the brain centers that can’t stand uncertainty
The team then measured neural activity in the brain while the monkeys made their choices. They discovered that a brain area, called the anterior cingulate cortex, stored information about the animals’ attitudes towards both good and bad possibilities.
Study authors also discovered another area, called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which contains individual cells whose activity reflects an animal’s attitude towards wanting to find out more information or not wanting to know what happens next. This could lead to better treatments for people who suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, which involve not being able to tolerate uncertainty.
“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,” Monosov explains. “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.”
The findings appear in the journal Neuron.
SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.