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How the brain decides whether to learn or stay blissfully unaware

A team of psychologists at the University College London has investigated what happens inside of our minds when we make the decision to remain uneducated on a subject or choose to pursue knowledge. The researchers found that the same brain connections that are used to process rewards, such as food and money, are also used to gain new information.

*The pursuit of knowledge is a basic feature of human nature, however, in issues ranging from health to finance, people sometimes choose to remain ignorant,” explained study senior author Dr. Tali Sharot.

“Our research shows that the brain’s reward circuitry selectively treats the opportunity to gain knowledge about future favorable outcomes, but not unfavorable outcomes, as a reward in and of itself, explaining why knowledge may not always be preferred.”

The study was focused on 62 participants who were presented with the option of receiving information or remaining ignorant about the outcome of a series of lotteries – which had both favorable and unfavorable odds.

The brain activity of half of the participants was scanned while they were making their decisions. This data revealed that activity in the brain’s reward system was active in response to learning more about the good lotteries, while there was no brain activity in this region when it came to learning about the bad lotteries.

It was also discovered that the same region – the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area – displayed a pattern of activity similar to what is observed in response to material rewards when the individuals were anticipating new knowledge about the good lotteries.

“When participants were told they were about to gain information, the more likely information was to convey good news, the more likely we were to observe a neural signature typical of reward processing,” said Dr. Sharot.

“The findings may help explain why people are more likely to check their bank accounts when they believe their value has gone up and less likely to do so when they suspect it has gone down.”

Study lead author Dr. Caroline Charpentier of the California Institute of Technology added: “Our findings are consistent with the theory that beliefs have utility in and of themselves. This means believing that something will happen has the power to affect us in positive and negative ways, similar to how actual events affect us.”

“It therefore follows that people are motivated to seek information that can create positive beliefs and avoid information that can create negative beliefs, which can explain why people avoid medical screenings even in cases when those tests can save them.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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