Exploring The Brain-Changing Magic Of Novelty


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Make your lives extraordinary — it seems like good advice, if not a bit too broad to pin down. All too often, we find ourselves trapped in a routine that can sometimes be hard to break, finding comfort in predictability, but every so often, we’ll see something unique — or hear about someone else’s vacation described in bold detail, and decide “that’s something for the bucket list” — a big event we’ll get to some day or other, and have our different ways of going about it.

Whether we get any of it, or whether we don’t, a part of us craves unique and unconventional experiences, and there’s a growing body of research to show that this might be good food for your brain.

“There is a connection between novelty and happiness,” says Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist who has started and taught an extremely popular course at Yale titled “Psychology and the Good Life.” According to Santos, unique forms of stimuli target those regions of our brain involved with reward circuitry. Aside from just a much-needed rush of dopamine, seeing unique sights and sounds for the first time that you’ve only read about in a magazine or heard about from a co-worker’s story captivates our attention, causing us to live in the moment and notice things that those who have gone before us have not. “There’s lots of evidence that simply being more present can improve our mood and happiness.”

After a series of previous studies using animal test subjects demonstrated that new experiences are critical to brain development, a team of researchers decided to try the same experiment using humans. They recruited their subjects in both New York City and Miami, tracking GPS data from their phones, and every other day sent them text messages asking about their current mood. The study was carried out prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and was published by Nature Neuroscience.

“What we found was that for every person, on days when they displayed greater exploration, greater “roaming entropy,” they reported feeling happier. It’s as simple as that,” said the study’s co-author Dr. Aaron Heller of the University of Miami. His team then decided to take on a more nuanced analysis, so they gathered data on how many new places their subjects explored. “The experience of novelty, or going to places you had never been before, actually seemed to have an even larger association with positive emotion on that day.

Heller and his colleagues also uncovered a bidirectional relationship between the nature of exploration and happiness. People who happen to be in a good mood on a particular day have more drive to explore, while at the same time, people who explore their surroundings more tend to be in better moods. What’s even better is that the positivity individuals feel from experiencing something new or unpredictable leaves a lasting impression, carrying into the next day, and perhaps even into the day after.

Beyond simply experiencing prolonged happiness, novelty has a few other unexpected benefits to offer.

Novelty Affects Your Perception Of Time

Dr. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist whose chief research interest is how we perceive the passage of time. When it comes to having novel experiences, he made a strange discovery: they can actually slow down time as you experience it, effectively making one’s life seem longer. An example Eagleman proposes is what summers feel like now compared to ones from your childhood.

“The only time you really write down memories is when something is novel. For a child, at the end of a summer, they have lots of memories to draw on because so many things are new. The summer seems to have taken forever in retrospect,” Eagleman explains. “But once you’re an adult, you kind of know the rules of the world, so when you get to the end of the summertime, you think, oh my gosh, where did that disappear to? Why? Because you don’t have any ‘footage’ to draw on. You can’t really remember much in terms of distinguishable memories of the summer because everything else was pretty much routine.”

This is likely why we tend to make those detailed plans for what we plan to accomplish in the summer months or when we have extended time off — and never manage to get through the list.

Novelty Innovates Us

Perhaps the most obvious line of inquiry is the question of how experiencing new things can shape our brain — something that Eagleman and colleagues have researched in depth, as well as the contrast of how a lack of new experiences may also impact our brains. “There’s generally a drive, especially as people get older and have less energy, to make things more predictable,” says Eagleman, a firm believer in pursuing unique experiences whenever possible — even if it’s something as mundane as finding a new way to get to work or a meeting each day, but more importantly, expanding one’s own social connections. “Other people are the biggest challenge that the brain has,” he says, “because you never know what the other person is gonna say or do.”

As unpleasant a truth as it may be, our brains are in a state of constant degeneration, something that you might even think you’re experiencing when it comes to making that last minute deadline. Perhaps the best line of defense against this gradual death is to consistently pursue new challenges and ideas that allow the brain to regularly form new pathways in place of the old ones.

In recent years, with a devastating pandemic not seen in a century, this degeneration has been allowed to happen more rapidly than usual. Dr. Rich Walker of Colorado State University Pueblo has a theory for why this is the case. Walker has spent decades looking at the correlation between the variety of our experience and the positive emotions we harbor. As the pandemic began, he found a considerable decline of both. One problem is the nature of how we’ve tried to resume business as usual — the ever-dreaded Zoom conference.

“We’ve had a number of experiences written down now in our studies that reflect Zoom experiences, experiences that are digital. Those are emotionally flat,” says Walker. “They don’t have nearly the engagement. They’re rated as being significantly less memorable, significantly less important, significantly less engaging. The emotionality tends to be neutral to negative with these experiences and they’re simply just forgotten very rapidly.”

Like Santos, Walker believes in a strong correlation between social experiences and good mental health — proving particularly invaluable when it comes to dealing with our own feelings of negativity, which do worse particularly when bombarded with devastating news reports that are impossible to avoid whether using the internet or browsing through TV or newspapers. The isolation makes coping with negativity that much more difficult.

What If New Experiences Are Off The Table?

Perhaps one of the more unfortunate lessons of the pandemic that can’t easily be forgotten is the realization that we have events arise in our lives, regardless of what we do, that will cap the number of new experiences we are able to have. Regardless of what interesting and unusual things cross our path, we will invariably reach a point known as “hedonic adaptation,” when these new experiences or people or objects in our lives lose their intrigue and we are likely to feel like moving onto something else. Fortunately, help is on the way, and it’s simpler than you think. Santos’ brief advice consists of two concepts you’ve likely heard before: “mindfulness” and “gratitude.”

“The simple act of being grateful for the things that you have means that you’re paying attention to the features of them,” Santos said. “I’ve, in some sense, used gratitude to bring novelty to an experience that was boring a few seconds ago: when you’re thinking gratefully, it can all of a sudden seem new.”

Think of a warm day in spring or early summer and the feelings and smells that come with it and how fortunate you are to see it — the long winter that passed to get to this point, and even the last time you experienced a day like it — and eventually you’ll be experiencing the familiar in a new light.

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