The expression”doomscrolling” describes the action of endlessly scrolling through bad news on social networking and reading each worrisome tidbit that pops up, a habit that unfortunately appears to have become prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The biology of our brains may play a part in that. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified particular areas and cells within the brain that become active when an individual is faced with the option to conceal or conceal from advice about an undesirable aversive event the patient likely has no power to stop.
The findings, published June 11 at Neuron, can shed light on the processes underlying psychiatric conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety — and of course how all of us cope with the deluge of information that is a feature of contemporary life.
“People’s brains aren’t well equipped to deal with the information age,” said senior author Ilya Monosov, PhD, an associate professor of neuroscience, of neurosurgery and of biomedical engineering. “People are constantly checking, checking, checking for news, and some of that checking is totally unhelpful. Our modern lifestyles could be resculpting the circuits in our brain that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive in an uncertain and ever-changing world.”
In 2019, studying monkeys, Monosov laboratory members J. Kael White, PhD, then a graduate student, and senior scientist Ethan S. Bromberg-Martin, PhD, identified two brain regions involved with tracking doubt about positively anticipated events, such as rewards. Activity in those areas drove the monkeys’ motivation to find information about good things that may happen.
But it wasn’t clear whether the same circuits were involved in seeking information about negatively anticipated events, like punishments. After all, most people want to know whether, for example, a bet on a horse race is likely to pay off big. Not so for bad news.
“In the clinic, when you give some patients the opportunity to get a genetic test to find out if they have, by way of example, Huntington’s disease, a few people will go ahead and receive the exam as soon as they could, though other individuals will refuse to get tested until symptoms happen,” Monosov said. “Clinicians view information-seeking behaviour in some individuals and dread behavior in others.”
To find the neural circuits involved in deciding whether to seek information regarding unwelcome possibilities, first writer Ahmad Jezzini, PhD, and Monosov taught two monkeys to recognize when something unpleasant could be headed their way. They trained the monkeys to comprehend symbols that signaled they mig