The term “doomscrolling” describes the act of endlessly scrolling through bad news on social media and reading every disturbing detail that pops up, a habit that unfortunately seems to have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our brain biology can play a role in this. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified specific areas and cells in the brain that become active when an individual is faced with the choice of learning or withholding information about an unwanted aversive event that the individual probably does not have the power to prevent. .
The results, published on June 11 in Neuron, could shed light on the processes underlying psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety – not to mention how we all cope with the deluge of information that characterizes modern life.
“People’s brains are not well equipped to cope with the information age,” said lead author Ilya Monosov, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience, neurosurgery and biomedical engineering. “People are constantly checking, checking, checking the news, and some of those checks are totally unnecessary. Our modern lifestyles could reshape the circuitry in our brains that has evolved over millions of years to help us survive in a uncertain and ever-changing world. world. “
In 2019, studying monkeys, members of the Monosov laboratory J. Kael White, PhD, then a graduate student, and principal scientist Ethan S. Bromberg-Martin, PhD, identified two areas of the brain involved in tracking uncertainty about positively anticipated events, such as rewards. Activity in these areas motivated the monkeys to find information about good things that can happen.
But it was not clear whether the same circuits were involved in finding information about negatively anticipated events, like punishments. After all, most people want to know if, for example, a bet on a horse race is likely to pay off big. This is not the case with bad news.
“In the clinic, when some patients are given the opportunity to do a genetic test to find out if they have, for example, Huntington’s disease, some will do the test as soon as they can, while others will refuse. to be tested until symptoms appear, “Monosov said.” Clinicians see information seeking behavior in some people and feared behavior in others. “
To find the neural circuits involved in deciding whether or not to seek information about unwanted possibilities, first author Ahmad Jezzini, PhD, and Monosov taught two monkeys to recognize when something unpleasant might be heading their way. They trained the monkeys to recognize symbols that indicated that they might be about to have an itchy puff of air in their face. For example, monkeys were first shown a symbol that told them that a puff could happen, but with varying degrees of certainty. A few seconds after the first symbol was displayed, a second symbol was displayed which resolved the uncertainty of the animals. He told the monkeys that the puff would definitely come, or not.
The researchers measured whether the animals wanted to know what was going to happen by monitoring the second signal or looking away or, in separate experiments, letting the monkeys choose from different symbols and their results.
Like people, the two monkeys had different attitudes towards bad news: one wanted to know; the other preferred not to do so. The difference in their attitudes towards bad news was striking because they were of the same opinion when it came to good news. When given the opportunity to find out if they were about to receive something they loved – a drop of juice – they both systematically chose to find out.
“We have found that attitudes toward seeking information about negative events can go both ways, even between animals that have the same attitude toward positive rewarding events,” said Jezzini, who is an instructor in neuroscience. “For us, it was a sign that the two attitudes can be guided by different neural processes.”
By accurately measuring neural activity in the brain as the monkeys faced these choices, the researchers identified an area of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, that separately encodes information about attitudes toward good and bad possibilities. They discovered a second area of the brain, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which contains individual cells whose activity reflects the overall attitude of the monkeys: yes for information on good or bad possibilities versus yes for information on good possibilities. only.
Understanding the neural circuits underlying uncertainty is a step towards better therapies for people with disorders such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which involve an inability to tolerate uncertainty.
“We started this study because we wanted to know how the brain encodes our desire to know what our future holds,” Monosov said. “We live in a world in which our brains have not evolved. The constant availability of information is a new challenge to be met. I think understanding the mechanisms of information retrieval is quite important for society and for society. mental health at a population level. “