The Importance of Novelty


Often, health and fitness pundits encourage us to have predictable, healthy routines: go to sleep at a set time, don’t eat after 8 p.m., exercise at least three times per week, get a yearly check-up, and so on. Undoubtedly, it is important to hardwire these kinds of habits into our schedules, so that they become ingrained into our lifestyles. But is it possible that “anti-routine” should also be a regular part of our routines? That might sound contradictory, but research into brain health and longevity suggests that regular experience of novelty is essential to a long, happy life.

Novelty, by definition, is anything that is new to us, and the experience of novelty can take many forms: meeting a new friend, learning a new skill, buying a new outfit, listening to new music, or traveling to a new environment. Most mammals, especially humans, naturally prefer novelty, so long as it does not come with some perceived threat. Rats in a lab maze will automatically explore a newly opened section of the maze, and children will automatically gravitate toward a new toy, even when old favorites are readily available.

The reason for this preference is simple — novelty makes us happy. Brain research has shown that a rush of dopamine accompanies fresh experiences of any kind. In one study published in the journal Neuron, researchers showed participants a series of images that were mostly very similar and commonplace: ordinary landscapes, interiors, and faces. Then, they randomly threw in an “oddball” image, something that was unexpected and out of the ordinary. Observing which areas of the subjects’ brains were activated during the experiment, they found that the “pleasure centers” of the brain, located mainly in the midbrain, were activated when the oddball appeared, resulting in a flood of dopamine throughout the brain.

This feature of the human brain likely granted us great evolutionary advantage. As brains became larger and more complex, learning became necessary; raw instinct alone was not enough. Because we could learn, we adapted to all sorts of environments by learning how to cope with ones we had not experienced before. This attraction to novelty motivated us to explore and learn about new environments, and our adventurousness was rewarded with a dose of dopamine along with greater chances of survival. The uncanny way that humans have spread around the world and developed societies in all sorts of environments is undoubtedly dependent on this feature of the brain.

But is novelty still necessary in our safe, modern world? Yes, very much so, because it is practically impossible to thrive without it. Learning, whether academic, job-related, or otherwise, continues to depend on novelty. New experiences and information stimulate the memory centers of the brain, which are closely related to the pleasure centers described above. That’s why you remember out-of-the ordinary days back in high school — the day you got in trouble or broke up with someone or won the academic decathlon — better than the many other dull days that passed by without incident. The novelty of those situations helped to cement them in your brain. That’s also why good teachers always look for new ways to approach otherwise boring subjects; novelty makes things interesting, which in turn makes information easier to remember. Ultimately, people cannot maintain interest in any topic for long if novelty is not present.

In other words, we need that dopamine rush to keep us motivated to keep going in life — to learn, to work, to succeed. If we no longer feel this rush of dopamine, we will likely give up on that activity and look for pleasure elsewhere. Career success is also dependent on this, since people become bored and unmotivated if sufficient new challenges are not offered, and even our closest personal relationships break down if they succumb to predictable routines. Also, without novel experiences, creativity and innovation is practically impossible, since our brains are never challenged to consider new perspectives or to integrate new information.

Novelty is so important to well-being that researchers have identified “neophilia” — the desire to have novel experiences — as a predictor of longevity. People who actively seek out new experiences throughout life live happier, healthier lives. This is an important consideration for those who want to live well in their older years, since the tendency to seek out novel experiences often declines with age. Our natural desire for novelty is to some degree counteracted by the fact that our brains become strongly wired to the routines we have established, making one less likely to stray from familiar experiences. Also, financial limitations, ageist social constructs, and mobility issues can make it more difficult for people to access new experiences in their later years.

Yet, there are many seniors who do embrace that carpe diem attitude toward life, and their life span and health span is lengthened as a result. According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, some seniors break the mold simply because of personality type. Most of us are “risk averse,” meaning we shy away from experiences that present a threat of some kind, either physical or emotional. In other words, we might avoid new activities if we are afraid we might injure or embarrass ourselves. A minority of people, however, have no such aversion and are of the “novelty seeking” personality type. While this type naturally continues to seek unique experiences, the risk-averse type can and should find ways to push a little bit beyond their comfort zone, if they want to keep their brains in top shape. Those who do live longer and healthier, and they maintain better memory and learning skill into their late 90s and beyond.

But is there any dark side to novelty? Is it possible to be too much of a neophiliac? Well, yes, and it is becoming more of a problem in contemporary culture. Anyone can become addicted to the dopamine rush associated with novelty, and our information age offers lots and lots of novelty that is always accessible through our computers and cellphones. If you have ever found yourself surfing the internet for an hour when you intended to only look up one simple item, you have felt the addictive power of novelty. The dopamine rush we experience becomes a kind of drug as we click on one item and then the next. Instead of popping pills, we click and click and click to get that next fix. For some, this becomes a bona fide addiction that interferes with their life’s progress. Other experiential addictions, like gaming, food, and sex addictions, probably arise from similar patterns of behavior.

The best use of novelty requires novelty within novelty. In other words, don’t return too often to the same source of novelty, or you may develop an addiction. Also, novelty must be balanced by necessary routines, or life becomes a chaotic succession of experiences with no clear structure or direction. The best policy is to use novelty to help you check off the items on your “bucket list” and to help you fulfill your potential to access new talents and abilities. Use it to get beyond the fears that hold you back or that limit your experience of life … and to become the novel you that will be born as a result.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2017 issue.

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