Brain Teasers

How information is like snacks, money, and drugs—to your brain

Two people sitting in bed engrossed in their own mobile device.

Can’t stop checking your phone, even when you’re not expecting any important messages? Blame your brain.

A new study by Haas Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu has found that information acts on the brain’s dopamine-producing reward system in the same way as money or food.

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” says Hsu, a neuroeconomist whose research employs functional magnetic resonance imaging, psychological theory, economic modeling, and machine learning. “Just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful—what some may call idle curiosity.” Hsu’s research demonstrates that the brain converts information into the same common scale as it does for money. It also lays the groundwork for unraveling the neuroscience behind how we consume information—and perhaps even digital addiction.

“We were able to demonstrate for the first time the existence of a common neural code for information and money, which opens the door to a number of exciting questions about how people consume, and sometimes over-consume, information,” Hsu says.

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