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The satisfaction of resolving uncertainty: A project to test what makes learning, deduction and retrieval rewarding in itself

Research project Many aspects of our mental life are satisfying, as when learning a new skill, solving a problem, or successfully remembering an old fact. Satisfaction suggests internal reward signals may be operating to shape basic cognitive functions like memory, reasoning and plasticity and thus form a basic drive.

Head of project

Linus Holm
Associate professor

Project overview

Project period:

2020-01-01 2023-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Psychology

Research area


External funding

Swedish Research Council

Project description

In this project, we test the idea that the brain rewards itself to shape cognitive processes. For instance, memory retrieval may be attempted in anticipation of an intrinsic reward from successful retrieval. Furthermore, it seems like the harder the cognitive task, the greater is the anticipated reward. We propose that the brain rewards successful cognitive operations in proportion to the uncertainty of their completion. We test this idea in three behavioral studies, including how word knowledge uncertainty at encoding, uncertainty in a logical reasoning task and uncertainty in memory retrieval determines the satisfaction from learning the word meaning, solving the logical problem and retrieving the uncertain memory. Furthermore, we test the commonality of the rewards in an fMRI experiment that assess brain activity in word knowledge acquisition and retrieval, respectively, and compare to reward-related neural circuitry recruited from a standard extrinsic reward gambling task. The project provides insights on what motivates us to learn and think, of general interest to educators. It also illuminates a poorly understood characteristic of human nature; our urge for understanding. 

External funding