Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Thesis defense Lieke van Lieshout (Donders series 487)

9 June 2021

Promotors: prof. dr. Roshan Cools, prof. dr. Floris P. de Lange

Why so curious? The cognitive and neural mechanisms of information seeking

Humans are curious by nature and we spend an enormous amount of time seeking information. Think for example about how many times we check our smartphones to see what is going on in the world around us. We can even be curious about information when it does not serve any obvious immediate purpose. The current thesis focuses on the cognitive and neural mechanisms of this so-called “non-instrumental curiosity”. The results of this thesis indicate that we are particularly curious when uncertainty is high and information provides us with a substantial update of what we know. Besides that, we are more curious when information is positive than when information is negative. This suggests that curiosity follows from multiple drives, including a drive to reduce uncertainty (knowing), as well as, separately, a drive to maximize positive information (savouring). This distinction is further underlined by the notion that the curiosity-triggering state of uncertainty is aversive, since we found that people were more curious but less happy when uncertainty was higher. Using fMRI, we showed that curiosity is implicated in brain areas that are involved in attention-related processes and brain areas involved in reward processing. However, we found no convincing evidence that curiosity could be related to activity in some of the key reward-related areas (such as the ventral striatum). Also individual differences in curiosity could not be related to dopamine synthesis capacity in the ventral striatum. These results contribute to our knowledge about why we are curious about information, even without obvious purpose.