Eating certain foods may increase intelligence and enhance brain power, and learning new things can also make you smarter. When you get the chance to learn new information or enjoy your favorite foods, your brain surprisingly reacts to both stimuli similarly. Researchers from Japan and the UK decided to run a study to examine the nature of the human brain further and understand specific triggers that govern human behavior and decision making.

An Experiment For The Mind

The desire to sate feelings of hunger and curiosity’s drive to know what was previously unknown both create a similar reaction in the brain. Even if a human might have to risk some discomfort to gain knowledge that is considered trivial, the drive to go forward to obtain a believed reward is worth the risks to many. Researchers from Japan and the UK decided to conduct an experiment, gathering various participants to show how curiosity affects our decision making as humans. Participants in this brain experiment were not allowed to consume any food or beverages two hours before the trial began. Everyone involved underwent a health screen and had no neurophysiological symptoms that would suffer adverse reactions from receiving an electrical shock.

As a reward for their participation, subjects would receive monetary compensation or credit hours. Participants were asked to quantify their desire for the food that was displayed or their curiosity about learning the secrets behind the magic tricks shown, using a seven-point scale. Following being exposed to set stimuli, participants were asked to interact with a Wheel of Fortune that would reward them with a token that could be exchanged for food or information, or punish them with an electric shock. Participants had an equal chance of winning a favorable result or losing badly, and the option to not gamble was available. No patients were exposed to an electric shock, as the fear of an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous experience was influencing enough. MRI was used to examine brain activity or some participants, to understand how the brain reacts to the desire for food, compared to the desire to satisfy curiosity.

Incentive Salience And Impulsiveness

When human beings make a decision, they may not realize that they naturally go through a cognitive process to figure out what choice to make. Based on the amount and type of effort that is required to attain a specific goal, and the intensity of the risk involved, a decision is made using motivational salience. When humans can have a pleasurable experience or feel they will obtain a desirable outcome, they are motivated by incentive salience. The chance to eat desired food when feeling a bit peckish, or the opportunity to gain previously unknown information to sate curiosity are examples of stimuli that achieve this process. Avoidance behavior or aversive salience is connected to human behavior to steer clear of punishment, unpleasant experiences, or an undesirable outcome. In the experiment conducted, the risk of losing a gambling bet, or the threat of receiving an electric shock was used as stimuli illustrating this concept.

Regarding decision making that may seem irrational or impulsive, the brain seems to ignore fear or risks if the desire to gain a specific outcome is strong enough. Various structures of the human brain are responsible for regulating the process of incentive salience, but the ventral striatum is the dominant trigger because of dopamine transmission. Humans can become easily addicted to whatever experiences are connected to increased dopamine levels in the brain, leading to sensitization of incentive salience and dissociation of liking something versus wanting something.

Motivated By Fear Factor

Fear is a stimulus that potentially can be so unpleasant that it triggers the process of aversive salience. The risk of being shocked by electricity if a participant lost a bet using the Wheel of Fortune managed to be immensely ignored by the brain, especially if the level of desire or wanting they held was stronger than fear. Usually, fear of physical pain can cause someone to change their behavior or choices if the risk is not worth the cost.

This experiment shows how strongly the human brain is propelled by curiosity or hunger, and how a human is willing to overcome obstacles or adversity to get the desired outcome as a result. The opportunity to have a positive experience caused by dopamine transmission if a decision is successful, especially if events have repeated themselves favorably in the past, is enough to sway a human’s actions.

Food Versus Mood As Influencers

Decision making isn’t necessarily driven by bias or a habit of being an impulsive person. When a person is in a positive mood, they are more likely to take greater risks. If a person is comfortable and not hungry, food may not be a huge motivational push to act, even if it is a favorite snack.

The drive to get answers when curious seems to be stronger than the power of being hungry to influence human decision making. When humans are in a positive mood or their hunger is sated, they may be more likely to overestimate the possibility that they will enjoy a successful outcome than a negative one. The increase of serotonin and oxytocin in the brain, triggered by dopamine activation, cause the brain to lower its perception of pain and reduces reaction to fear. Both positive experiences and feelings caused by dopamine, or satisfaction after enjoying a beloved food can encourage a human to incorrectly evaluate risks, and take more irrational chances.

Human Reward System

Getting to learn new information, even if it is trivial satisfies the human mind, similarly to the pleasurable experience of chowing down on a favorite food like pizza, cake, or french fries. Thanks to human evolution, foods that are high in fat, sugar, or salt have considerable influence on mood and decision making. Overall, the human brain is hardwired to chase instant gratification and positive rewards that alter the mood, or reinforce accepted beliefs.

Humans may like to think they are mostly rational about their behavior and decisions. This experiment illustrates how a human’s current mood or strength of desire can trigger a disregard for the perception of risks involved to get a reward, and that people may act in ways that may seem irrational. When human curiosity is peaked, or incentive salience is triggered, MRI scans show that the striatum is illuminated. Humans naturally desire to get immediate results, allow themselves to be driven by their wants or chasing the pleasure principle, and seek to avoid pain. Complements of dopamine or the perception of a stimulus, humans will act accordingly in response.