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Monkey study highlights brain biology behind 'doomscrolling'

Some people compulsively seek out potentially bad news, while others avoid it -- and new research offers insight into the instinct for doomscrolling. File Photo by Utsman Media/Unsplash
Some people compulsively seek out potentially bad news, while others avoid it -- and new research offers insight into the instinct for "doomscrolling." File Photo by Utsman Media/Unsplash

June 11 (UPI) -- Why do some humans seek out potentially bad news, "doomscrolling" through horrifying headlines, while others shy away from negative information?

It turns out monkeys do the same thing.

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Though a recent study of monkey behavior was unable to provide a definitive answer to the question of doomscrolling, the experimental findings -- published Friday in the journal Neuron -- did offer scientists fresh insights into the brain biology behind curiosity and dread.

"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," said senior author Ilya Monosov said in a news release.

"Clinicians see information-seeking behavior in some people and dread behavior in others," said Monosov, an associate professor of neuroscience, neurosurgery and biomedical engineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

To better understand this phenomenon, scientists used symbols to train monkeys to anticipate a potentially unpleasant event -- a puff of air to the face.

The first set of symbols alerted the monkeys that a puff of air was a possibility, but with a highly variable degree of certainty. A second set of symbols eliminated the doubt, communicating that either a puff of air to the face was eminent or the coast was clear.

In the lab, scientists noted how the trained monkeys behave after the first symbol appeared. Some monkeys trained their eyes on the second set of symbols, while others averted their gaze, avoiding the potentially bad news.

"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," said study first author Ahmad Jezzini.

"To us, that was a sign that the two attitudes may be guided by different neural processes," Jezzini, an instructor in neuroscience at the University of Washington, said in the press release.

The measurements of neural activity in the brains of the monkey models showed the anterior cingulate cortex separately processes information about both good and bad possibilities.

Meanwhile, a second area, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, dictates the monkey's behavioral response to said information -- whether or not to seek out or avoid the news.

Authors of the new study suggest their work could eventually help researchers understand the brain biology behind psychological problems like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"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 said.

"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," Monosov said.

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