Why our Brains Crave Novelty and How to Get More in Your Life

By Alison Bell

A few months ago I decided to return to school after 30-something years out of the classroom.

I have now been a Cal State LA English graduate student for three days.

In that time I’ve spent hours getting lost, parking in the wrong lots, and hiking up and down a hellacious set of stairs known as “cardiac hill.”  I’ve shown up unprepared for class because I couldn’t figure out how to get the assignments beforehand, and ordered textbooks on Amazon  only to stand in a long line at the bookstore to purchase those same books because I realized I needed them today not in two weeks.

I’ve sat in classes wondering if I even remember how to be a student, much less how I was going to master 18th century satire and 20th literary theory.  And I’ve been a nuisance to almost every young student I’ve met, asking questions ranging from, “Which elevator goes all the way to the 6th floor?” to “How the heck does the vending machine work?”

When I decided to enroll in graduate school in my 50s, I knew school would be a challenge.    But I didn’t realize the whole experience would be so, well, new. I’ve been bombarded with so much novelty, it’s like the Gods of Change are looking down at me, smiling in satisfaction.

I won’t deny I’ve wondered in these past 72 hours, should I quit?  But I also can’t suppress the feeling that I’ve embarked on something wonderful and grand, and that if there is only one thing I do in my life, it’s to hang on a little longer and at least get to Day Four of graduate school.

What exactly is flooding through my brain right now?  Why do I feel so oddly euphoric despite the stress? I did a little research and for starters, discovered the brain is primed to ignore the old and to focus on the new.  For example, if teachers add an element of surprise to a lesson, let’s say singing out instructions instead of saying them, students are more likely to remember the words.  Secondly, there’s a part of the brain that turns on when facing the unexpected called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area.  The greater the novelty, the bigger the reaction. So I am presuming that right now, my mind is lighting up pretty big time.

In addition, researchers have discovered that novelty causes the brain to release dopamine, which is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Not only that, dopamine stimulates the “reward” portion of our brain, causing us to crave even more of whatever it is that gives us pleasure – in this case, new experiences.

I also learned that seeking out new experiences can also keep you happy and healthy, according to C. Robert Cloninger, a Wallace Renard Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, whose research was detailed in a New York Times article. The article talks about how through personality tests, Cloninger has learned that scoring high in novelty seeking (a trait he calls “neophilia”)  is one of three indicators for having the best health, most friends, fewest emotional problems and greatest satisfaction with life.

This call to novelty makes me think of our staff of our residential program, where our employees work so hard to come up with new and fun activities for our children, such as forming the first-ever basketball and flag football teams, and of all the many volunteers who come on campus to offer our residents unique arts and crafts, music performances, and sports training.

Want to get the benefits of novelty can offer?  Experts say even the smallest deviations from your routine can do the trick, such as eating at a new restaurant, taking a different route on your daily walk, or picking up a novel when you usually only stick to non-fiction.

As you reward yourself with the pleasure of new discoveries, (the café across town you never thought to try before offers the best spaghetti carbonaalcroppedra you’ve ever tasted), you instinctively seek out more adventures –but watch out, or you’ll be the next one hiking up cardiac hill.

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