The act of continually scrolling through negative news on social media and absorbing every worrying piece that crops up is referred to as “doom scrolling,” and it appears to have been prevalent during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Research Discovers Brain Parts Are Involved In Obtaining Knowledge About Unpleasant Odds
People’s brain biology may have a part in this. Researchers at 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 hiding from information about an unwelcome aversive event over which the individual has little control.
The results, published on June 11 in Neuron, might offer insight into the mechanisms underlying mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, as well as how we all manage the information overload that is a staple of modern life.
According to lead author Ilya Monosov, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and biomedical engineering, people’s brains aren’t well adapted to deal with the digital era. People are constantly looking for news, and some of that monitoring is completely useless. Their contemporary lives may be altering brain circuits that have developed over millions of years to help us survive in an unpredictable and ever-changing world.
In 2019, Monosov laboratory members J. Kael White, Ph.D., and a graduate student, and senior scientist Ethan S. Bromberg-Martin, Ph.D. uncovered two brain regions involved in tracking ambiguity regarding positively expected events, such as rewards, while researching monkeys. The monkeys’ incentive to discover knowledge about nice things that could happen was fueled by activity in those locations.
However, it remained unclear if the same circuits were engaged in obtaining information regarding adversely expected outcomes, such as penalties. After all, most individuals want to know if a wager on a horse race, for example, is going to pay off handsomely. Not so with negative news.
First author Ahmad Jezzini, Ph.D., and Monosov trained two monkeys to notice when something unpleasant was on their way to identify the brain circuits involved in selecting whether to seek knowledge about unfavorable prospects. They taught the monkeys to detect indicators that suggested they were about to get an abrasive blast of air in the face. For example, the monkeys were originally shown one sign that indicated that a puff was possible, but with varying degrees of certainty. A few seconds after the initial signal, a second sign appeared, resolving the animals’ doubt. It either notified the monkeys that the puff was coming or that it wasn’t.
The researchers determined if the animals were interested in what was about to happen by watching for the second signal, averting their gaze, or, in other tests, allowing the monkeys to pick between other symbols and their outcomes.
The two monkeys, like people, had opposing views on terrible news: one wanted to know while the other did not. The disparity in their attitudes toward negative news was surprising because they had similar perspectives on good news. When offered the choice of learning if they were about to get something they enjoyed, such as a drop of juice, they both consistently selected to learn.
The researchers found one brain region, the anterior cingulate cortex that encodes information about attitudes toward good and terrible alternatives independently by accurately monitoring neuronal activity in the brain as the monkeys were confronted with these choices. They discovered a second brain region, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which includes individual cells whose activity reflects the monkeys’ overall attitudes: yes for information on both good and negative possibilities vs. yes for information on solely positive possibilities.
Understanding the brain circuits underpinning uncertainty is a step toward improved treatments for those suffering from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, both of which require an inability to tolerate ambiguity.