Understanding information need: an fMRI study

Yashar Moshfeghi, Peter Triantafillou, Frank E. Pollick

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution book

36 Citations (Scopus)
18 Downloads (Pure)


The raison d'etre of IR is to satisfy human information need. But, do we really understand information need? Despite advances in the past few decades in both the IR and relevant scientific communities, this question is largely unanswered. We do not really understand how an information need emerges and how it is physically manifested. Information need refers to a complex concept: at the very initial state of the phenomenon (i.e. at a visceral level), even the searcher may not be aware of its existence. This renders the measuring of this concept (using traditional behaviour studies) nearly impossible. In this paper, we investigate the connection between an information need and brain activity. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), we measured the brain activity of twenty four participants while they performed a Question Answering (Q/A) Task, where the questions were carefully selected and developed from TREC-8 and TREC 2001 Q/A Track. The results of this experiment revealed a distributed network of brain regions commonly associated with activities related to information need and retrieval and differing brain activity in processing scenarios when participants knew the answer to a given question and when they did not and needed to search. We believe our study and conclusions constitute an important step in unravelling the nature of information need and therefore better satisfying it.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 39th International ACM SIGIR conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval
Place of PublicationNew York, NY
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2016


  • information retrieval
  • fMRI study
  • information need


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