Curious monkeys are as thirsty for knowledge as humans

Curious monkeys are as thirsty for knowledge as humans

A research that involved a gambling experiment revealed monkeys have a high level of curiosity, thus implying that they are as thirsty for knowledge as humans.

Researchers at the University of Rochester and Columbia University subjected a species of Old World monkeys known as rhesus macaque under an experiment that involved a game of chance. Surprisingly, they found out that these highly curious monkeys are willing to give up a potential prize just to quickly find out whether or not they have selected the winning option.

“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 and a professor in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.

The specific game of chance presented to the monkeys was a video gambling task with water or juice as prize. It featured graduated colored columns that illustrated the amount of water or juice a particular participating monkey could have won.

During the experiments, the monkeys consistently chose to learn in advance whether they have picked the winning options. Furthermore, it turned out that they were more curious about their options whenever the columns were higher—or in other words, whenever the stakes and risks were higher.

“One way to think about this is that this is the amount of water the monkeys were willing to pay for the information [relating to their] choice,” explained Tommy Blanchard, lead researcher and a PhD candidate.

Nonetheless, the findings revealed a further understanding of how brain processes and rewards curiosity or information seeking.

The researchers noted that like the curious monkeys, humans are actively evaluating what they are willing to pay or give up to satisfy their curiosity. Thus, in gambling, options are dictated not only by the potential prize but also by the intrinsic need of the gambler to find out whether or not he made the right choice.

The findings also have greater implications in the study and treatment of mental illness.

Hayden noted, “One of the reasons this research is important [is that] this basic desire for information turns out to be something that’s really corrupted in people with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction, for example.

“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.”

Further details of the research are found in the article “Orbitofrontal Cortex Uses Distinct Codes for Different Choice Attributes in Decisions Motivated by Curiosity” published in 2015 in the journal Neuron. Ethan S. Bromberg-Martin of Columbia Univeristy is a senior co-author of the study. Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health supported the research. Photo credit: J. M. Gard/Adapted/GFDL