The Brain-Changing Magic of New Experiences
Many of us are craving to visit new places, for a more active social life meeting new people and in general experiencing new things in life. Whilst some of us have been fortunate to experience novelty by seeing the same things in our everyday life in a new way, as the author of this piece points out, the article tries to come up with a scientific explanation for why we seek novelty.
““There is a connection between novelty and happiness,” Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist who teaches the wildly popular “Psychology and the Good Life” course at Yale, told me. “Novel stimuli tend to activate regions of our brain that are associated with rewards.” There’s more than just the dopamine rush, though. “Novel things also capture our attention … you’re more likely to notice things and be present,” Santos continued. “There’s lots of evidence that simply being more present can improve our mood and happiness.”
After previous studies with animal subjects found that new experiences are beneficial for brain development, a group of researchers attempted a similar experiment in humans. They enlisted subjects in New York City and Miami and tracked GPS data on their phones, while texting them every other day to ask about their mood. The study was conducted pre-pandemic and published in Nature Neuroscience in May 2020.
“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 co-author Dr. Aaron Heller of the University of Miami. His team then did a more nuanced analysis in which they collected how many new places their subjects visited. “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.”
The researchers also found a bi-directional relationship between exploration and happiness: people who are in a good mood are more motivated to explore, while people who explore more end up in a better mood. The best part? The positive feelings from experiencing something new bled into the next day, if not the day after that.”
The article then goes onto highlight additional benefits of novelty before addressing a question in conclusion:
“But What If We Can’t Have New Experiences?
As the pandemic showed, there will be plenty of circumstances in our lives, oftentimes out of our control, that will limit the amount of new experiences we can have. We will also always hit a point called “hedonic adaptation,” when a new object or person or experience just isn’t very exciting to us anymore. Fortunately, Santos has some advice here. She suggests two techniques 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.””