2 kinds of monkeys

How our brains might be hard-wired to anticipate bad news. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I have a friend who doesn’t worry about things he can’t control.

It’s a hard-won habit. My friend will be the first to tell you he developed it because he made some mistakes when he was young, wound up in the criminal justice system, and even spent time in jail.

As a result, he had long periods in his youth in which he faced a parade of uncertainty and negative possibilities regarding his future. It was out of his hands, though, and if he hadn’t learned not to worry, he would have driven himself crazy.

My friend is now a success story by any measure: wonderful family, good job, no legal trouble in decades. But it turns out this ability he developed—not worrying when you can’t do anything anyway—is a valuable life skill in modern times.

Consider the notion of “doomscrolling”—defined as “the act of endlessly scrolling through bad news on social media and reading every worrisome tidbit that pops up.”

Especially in the past few years, it’s become more common as things have come together in a perfect storm:

  • the fairly recent combination of near-100% smartphone adoption and unlimited data plans (meaning people can be on their phones all the time), and

  • a steady trove of material for anyone who is in the business (or even just the hobby) of inundating people with bad news—starting but by no means ending with the pandemic.

Now, it turns out there’s likely another factor, too: Our brains simply aren’t designed to endure this barrage of negative stimuli, and they can guide us to react in self-defeating ways as a result.

Writing last month in the journal Neuron, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say they think they’ve found insights into how human brains anticipate and process potential bad news—conclusions they reached by conducting experiments on monkeys.

In short, they taught the monkeys to recognize symbols that indicated they might be about to receive “an irritating puff of air to the face.”

A few seconds after the “maybe bad news” symbol, they would be shown a second symbol that indicated whether the puff really would be coming—or not. Then:

The researchers measured whether the animals wanted to know what was going to happen by whether they watched for the second signal or averted their eyes—or, in separate experiments, letting the monkeys choose among different symbols and their outcomes. Much like people, the two monkeys had different attitudes toward bad news: One wanted to know; the other preferred not to.

By mapping the monkeys’ brains the whole time, the researchers said they found two specific areas of interest:

  • the anterior cingulate cortex, which encodes information about attitudes toward good and bad possibilities separately, and

  • the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which contains individual cells whose activity reflects attitudes toward wanting to know more information about the potential of either good or bad things happening.

"We're living in a world our brains didn't evolve for,” said senior author Ilya Monosov, PhD, an associate professor of neuroscience, neurosurgery, and biomedical engineering. “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."

Now, does knowing this theory about neuroscience help you to cut down on pandemic-era doomscrolling? Maybe not on its own.

But I think it’s comforting to know it’s neither a moral failing nor a simple bad habit, but a biological, neurological disadvantage you might need to guard against.

Call for comments: Which kind of monkey are you: the one who wanted to know about the potential for bad news or the one who avoided it?

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