The results were striking. As reported in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science, those whose neurons were primed for exploration in the wild were also more restless and exploratory in Scrabble, whereas those primed for exploitation were more focused and persevering when they switched to the abstract mental challenge. Put another way, the human brain appears capable of toggling back and forth between exploration and exploitation, depending on the demands of the task.
The psychologists also found that individuals were consistent in their cognitive style. That is, the most persevering foragers were also the most persistent Scrabble players, just as gadabouts in the food search tended to gallivant in intellectual matters as well. And presumably in life: they would probably be too antsy to settle for a “good enough” neighborhood café.
But dining out is trivial. These findings have more serious implications related to other recent work on brain chemistry and cognitive disorders. Exploratory and inattentive foraging—actual or abstract—appears to be linked to decreases in the brain chemical dopamine. Similarly, many problems related to attention—including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, drug addiction, some forms of autism, and schizophrenia—have been associated with a dopamine deficit. It is possible, psychologists say, that computer foraging might reveal one’s underlying cognitive style—either having persistence or lacking it. It is even possible that simulated foraging could have long-term effects on thinking style and possibly even lead to therapies for cognitive disorders. That is something worth exploring.
Note: This story was originally published with the title, "Foraging in the Modern World".