Study data published in Neuron provide insight into the neural underpinnings of information-seeking behaviors. In simian models of reward and punishment, distinct neural networks in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and prefrontal cortex (PFC) appeared to integrate preferences for information about uncertainty or adverse events.
Specifically, interconnected subregions of the ACC and PFC were activated when study monkeys were presented with an opportunity to either ingest or avoid information about potentially negative future outcomes. Such findings may elucidate the modern human impulse to consistently seek information regarding negative world events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the low utility of this information.
Simian models were used to assess the neural mechanisms that inform information-seeking behaviors. At a laboratory at the University of Washington in St. Louis, Missouri, monkeys were trained to associate visual cues with the probability of a subsequent juice reward or punishment. Punishment was applied in the form of an “air puff” delivered from the same dispenser as the juice reward.
Distinct visual cues were used to indicate varying probabilities of subsequent stimuli, including 25%, 50%, 87%, and 100% probability. Such study design allowed investigators to distinguish between high and low expectations of punishment or reward. Monkeys were fitted with a plastic head holder with electrodes targeted to brain regions of interest. Signal acquisition was performed throughout each trial. To test whether there was a behavioral component to information-seeking brain activity, investigators also designed a second visual cue (Cue2) to follow the initial cue (Cue1). Cue2 either provided definitive information on the upcoming stimulus or no information. Investigators tested the monkeys’ appetite for additional information (Cue2) by measuring whether they averted their eyes or continued looking at the screen after the conclusion of Cue1.
Participating in the trial were 2 adult male monkeys. The monkeys appeared to have distinct information attitudes: 1 monkey always chose to look for Cue2, while the second monkey avoided exposure to Cue2. However, when Cue1 indicated any degree of possibility for a reward outcome, both monkeys waited for Cue2.
These behavioral findings suggest that informational attitudes may vary by individual. In both cases, however, the same neural networks were involved: regions in the ACC enriched with “information-anticipating neurons” appeared to encode the anticipation of good and/or bad news. In both the ACC and the ventrolateral PFC (vlPFC), individual neurons could be used to differentiate specific attitudes towards information uncertainty. Certain neurons fired more often in anticipation of informative cues vs non-informative cues, suggesting that the ACC and vlPFC contain “distinct neuronal processes…to mediate preferences for reward and punishment uncertainty resolution.”
These data may provide insight into information-anticipatory behavior in humans. Motivation to resolve uncertainty appears to vary between individuals, though is encoded by the same neural regions generally. In the information age, the desire for continued exposure to the news cycle — for example — may thus have neural underpinnings. “We believe that the emerging field of research on information seeking will shed further light on the distinct circuits and motivational mechanisms that govern these informational preferences,” the investigators wrote.
Jezzini A, Bromberg-Martin ES, Trambaiolli LR, Haber SN, Monosov IE. A prefrontal network integrates preferences for advance information about uncertain rewards and punishments. Neuron. Published online June 11, 2021. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2021.05.013