If curiosity killed the cat, did satisfaction bring it back?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Satisfying our curiosity can cost us money and time, so why bother? Perhaps feeding our curiosity is actually rewarding to our brains…

Do you often find yourself coming across an intriguing message on Facebook or Twitter and immediately clicking to read the whole story? Or do you endlessly scroll through Instagram pictures of your friends to see how they spent their holidays? We often have to spend time, energy, or money in order to satisfy our curiosity. Even when that is the case, we still follow that drive towards information, because doing so can feel quite rewarding.

In our everyday lives, we consume a lot of information to satisfy our curiosity.

Image from FaceMePLS (CC BY 2.0)

Why are we curious?

In some cases, we seek information because it’s directly useful for us. For instance, when waiting to hear from a friend, you might jump at the chance to check your phone after it vibrates. However, in many cases information doesn’t have a clear use but we still want access to it. Like when you can’t wait to find out what will happen in the next episode of your favourite TV show. This suggests that information can be rewarding in itself and not only when it helps us accomplish specific goals. Moreover, we know that people are willing to pay for information if they can get it soon, rather than waiting for it. Apparently, we are so interested in information that we pursue it even when it comes at a cost.

Did curiosity kill the cat, or did satisfaction bring it back?

Image from jinterwas (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Two types of curiosity

It might be that curiosity is different when we seek information for a specific goal compared to when we seek it for no particular reason. To investigate if this is the case, we will invite participants to do a task in the MRI scanner and measure their brain activity. Looking at the brain can help us understand what causes people to act the way they do. In this task, people uncover information that they are curious about. Some of this information has a particular purpose (they can earn money with it in the experiment), and some does not. When people uncover information for a particular purpose (for instance, to earn money), we expect regions of the prefrontal cortex (frontal cortical area of the brain) to be active. These areas are involved in planning and goal-directed actions, things that humans are very good at compared to other animals. When people are curious for no specific reason, we expect the striatum (a subcortical area deep within our brains) to be active. This area processes reward and surprise and is shared among many animals.

Curiosity and information consumption are pervasive in our lives, even though they come at a cost. If satisfying our curiosity engages the striatum (the reward and surprise area of our brains), this would explain why we often seek information without any apparent purpose.

We spend a lot of time in front of our computers, on our phones, and are constantly on the lookout for information. Are we driven towards information because it is rewarding in itself? We are dying to find out!

Written by Patricia Romero Verdugo. Patricia is a master’s student at the Donders Institute. She wants to do research on curiosity and information seeking for her PhD.

Edited by Marisha.

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