Surprise: You can be hungry for answers

Quick Notes:

  • Scientists studied the difference between someone’s hunger for knowledge and hunger for food

  • The research revealed startling facts about the link between hunger and the brain

  • The study involved a neat trick to determine how far people would go to satisfy their cravings

When you’re curious about something, you won’t be satisfied until you learn the answer. Curiosity is similar to hunger, in which you have an intense thirst for knowledge. The brain needs to be fed like you would feed your stomach, to squelch your cravings.

There is a connection between hunger and the brain, except this time, it’s a hunger for knowledge. But how was this unique type of hunger discovered? If you feel hungry, you might just be hungry to learn something new.

About the discovery

To study the effect of knowledge on the human brain, researchers from the United Kingdom and Japan conducted an experiment in which participants watched either a brief video clip of a magic trick or a photograph of appetizing food. They would determine if the participants were more inclined to keep their attention on the food or the magic trick. Then, the participants were asked if they were interested enough to gamble for their selection.

RobinHiggins/Pixabay

Before they would answer, the participants saw a wheel in the style of Wheel of Fortune, which depicted the likelihood of their winning. If the wheel landed on a winning spin, they would be able to consume the food, or they would have a chance to learn how the magic trick worked. On the other hand, if the wheel landed on a losing spin, they were told they would be shocked with electricity. Don’t worry; they wouldn’t actually be shocked, but the threat was necessary for the experiment.

So, what were the results?

Scientists learned that curiosity and hunger swayed the participants’ decisions. They were inclined to accept the lottery—to spin the wheel—because they were curious about the magic tricks or the delicious food tempted them. The risk of suffering an electric shock didn’t matter as much as fulfilling their curiosity or hunger.

This ultimately means people are motivated by both hunger and their general curiosity to risk any pain

The research led scientists to determine curiosity fuels a psychological craving, similar to hunger. If people are curious about something and it’s challenging to find the answer, most of them will stop at nothing to learn the truth. They must solve the question, or they’ll feel unsatisfied. If you have felt this way, then you know exactly what we’re talking about.

Starving for answers

Researchers had to continue their study to decide if there is a link between hunger and the brain. Is there a difference between someone’s hunger for knowledge and their hunger for food? To complete the study, scientists conducted brain scans on the willing participants. They studied the brain activity of people who chose to spin the wheel. If they turned the wheel and they were hungry, did this trigger different parts of the brain than if they were curious?

The answer is simple: No, there weren’t any differences

In both cases, the striatum—the area of the brain where “incentive salience,” also known as “wanting” and “desire,” comes from–lit up. People desire food, and they also desire answers. If they’re left without any answers, they don’t know what to do with themselves.

The test results are alarming to many scientists. For instance, we crave knowledge the same way we crave a cheeseburger or slice of chocolate cake. If a cherry is dangled in front of us, we want to eat it. If the truth or an unanswered question is dangled in front of us, leading us on with a sneak peek of the answer, we desire to solve the problem.

We want to gain knowledge the same way we want to eat in order to stay alive. We need information. So, the next time your friends tease you about reading a book or studying extra hard for an exam, tell them you’re taking care of your body. You’re satisfying your cravings—just in a unique, new way.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Ever since your childhood, you have been told you get a sugar rush after eating sweets. Science reveals that’s not exactly true.

You might think you know a lot of general knowledge about science, but a new study reveals that might not be the case.