Curious Monkeys Share Humans' Thirst for Knowledge

First Posted: Feb 13, 2015 10:24 AM EST

Humans aren't the only ones who get curious. It turns out that monkeys are also curious and eager to gain new information. The new research reveals how a certain part of the brain shared by both monkeys and humans plays a role in decision making.

"It's like buying a lottery ticket that you can scratch off and find out if you win immediately, or you can buy one that has a drawing after the evening news," said Benjamin Hayden, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Regardless, you won't get the money any more quickly, or in the case of the monkeys, they won't get the squirt of water any sooner. They will just find out if they selected the winning option."

In this latest experiment, rhesus macaques were presented with a video gambling task. Graduated colored columns illustrated the amount of water that could be won. However, the monkeys were more curious about the gambles when the stakes, or columns were higher. Not only did the monkeys consistently select the gamble that informed them that they picked a winner right away, but they were also willing to select the option when the winnings were up to 25 percent less than the gamble that required them to wait for the results.

"That 25 percent was really surprising to us-that's pretty big," said Hayden. "These monkeys really, really want that information, and they do these gambling tasks repeatedly and never get bored of them-it's intrinsically motivated."

The findings actually help build a broader understanding for how curiosity-information seeking-is processed and rewarded in the brain. Like monkeys, when curious we evaluate what we'd be willing to pay to satisfy our curiosity. In the case of gambling, there's also the potential of a prize to factor in; it depends on the sum of the two things when it comes to our decisions.

"One of the reasons this research is important is because this basic desire for information turns out to be something that's really corrupted in people with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction," said Hayden. "We think that by understanding these basic circuits in monkeys, we may gain insights that 10 to 15 years down the road may lead to new treatments for these psychiatric diseases."

The findings are published in the journal Neuron.

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