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Monkeys Share Thirst for Knowledge Just Like Humans: Study

monkeysMonkeys are notoriously curious, going by new research that shows how eager they are to gain new information, even if it means no immediate benefits as their brain indicates similar brain structure like humans in a region called the Orbitofrontal cortex, or OFC.

The study, by researchers at the University of Rochester and Columbia University, shows that rhesus macaques have such robust curiosity that they are willing to give up a surprisingly large portion of a potential prize in order to quickly find out if they selected the winning option at a game of chance.

“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,” explained Benjamin Hayden, co-senior author of the study and professor in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. “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 the study published in Neuron, monkeys were presented with a video gambling task in which they consistently chose to learn in advance if they picked the winning option. The monkeys did not receive their prize any sooner, which was a measure of juice or water; they were simply informed immediately if they selected a winner.

“When it’s simply a choice between getting the information earlier or not, the monkeys show a pretty strong preference for getting it earlier. But what we really wanted to do is quantify this preference,” said first author and lead researcher Tommy Blanchard, a Ph.D. candidate in Hayden’s lab.

In the video gambling experiments, graduated colored columns illustrated the amount of water that could be won. The monkeys were more curious about the gambles when the stakes—or columns—were higher.

The researchers found the monkeys not only consistently selected the gamble that informed them if they picked a winner right away, but they were also willing to select that option when the winnings were up to 25 percent less than the gamble that required them to wait for the results. “One way to think about this is that this is the amount of water the monkeys were willing to pay for the information about if they made the correct choice,” explained Blanchard.

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

“We think that by understanding these basic circuits in monkeys we may gain insights that 10 to15 years down the road may lead to new treatments for these psychiatric diseases,” Hayden said. Ethan S. Bromberg-Martin of Columbia University was co-senior author of the study.

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