Learning makes your brain happy

Learning generates a brain reward:
This preference for knowledge about the future was intimately linked to the monkeys' desire for water. The same neurons in the middle of their brains signalled their expectations of both rewards - the watery prizes and knowledge about them.

All the neurons in question release the signalling chemical dopamine. While the monkeys were making their choices, Bromberg-Martin and Hikosaka recorded the activity of 47 dopamine neurons in their midbrains. These neurons became very excited when the monkeys saw a symbol that predicted a large amount of water, while the symbol that cued a smaller drink inhibited the neurons. The same dopamine neurons were excited during trials where the monkey only saw the symbol that heralded forthcoming information, and they were inhibited if they monkey only saw the other non-informative symbol.

Why information is its own reward - same neurons signal thirst for water, knowledge (via Raph Koster)


  1. On the downside, human desire for and reward of information about the future has bred every huxter and con-man from augurs to Wall Street forecasters.

    Tell someone the future is largely unknowable and they’ll ignore you. Tell them you can read it in a sheep’s intestines/scriptural interpretation/theory on the behavior of stocks/etc, and their dopamine-fired brains will make you a good living.

  2. I concur with tp1024. The experience of spontaneously breaking out in laughter upon learning some unexpected fact about the world is a joyous thing.

    Learn more, enjoy more.

    Be warned however: corporations are always trying to get you to trade that joy in for cash. Keep your wits about you. Take care what you make deals with.

  3. I’m pretty sure that the monkey would have been even happier had some researcher not decided to stick a monitoring device into its mid-brain.

    And to be honest, so would I.

    Yes I know, I’m repeating myself.

  4. Learning makes your brain make drugs for you.

    The desire for these drugs can lead to you putting probes into other sentient beings’ noodles.

    Some people will do anything for their fix.

  5. I have to wonder: what makes these monkeys so stoked about getting a drink of water? I could see juice or something, but wouldn’t water only be rewarding if the monkeys had been otherwise deprived of it?

    Then again, as other commenters have mentioned, the monkeys had their skulls cut open and wires stuck in. So maybe being chronically dehydrated is the least concern.

  6. That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from T. H. White’s Once and Future King –

    “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

  7. #1, The future is not completely unknowable. We can take cold comfort, at least, in knowing the meteor or comet is inevitable.

    #2, Don’t you love it when the lab coats make discoveries that have been common knowledge for hundreds of years?

Comments are closed.