If you’re ecstatic after a trip to the shops, your brain is thanking you for the novelty | Health

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I hit a wall in late February and felt that life had taken on a quality of stultifying sameness. Was it Wednesday or Sunday? I couldn’t really tell: every day of the week felt identical because there was nothing to distinguish them. Work, read, exercise, eat, repeat. Like nearly everyone I know, I have settled into a state of dreary uniformity.

The pandemic has been a vast uncontrolled experiment – not just in social isolation, which is bad enough, but in the deprivation of novelty. Overnight we were stripped of our ability to roam around our world the way we usually do. Gone were the chance encounters with other people and the experience of new things and places: no travel, no adventures, no restaurants, no theatres, no crowds. We weren’t just quarantined from Covid: we were cut off from the ubiquitous stimulation of the unfamiliar and new.

Early last fall, I was so bored being stuck at home that I went out to buy an air conditioner (it was still pretty hot), and spent an inordinate amount of time in a real store with real people talking about the mechanics of air conditioners. When I returned home, I was nearly ecstatic.

I hate shopping, so it got me thinking about why an experience I usually find boring and unpleasant could be exhilarating. In a word, novelty. Like millions of people who didn’t have jobs that required them to go back to work in person, I’ve been living a constricted and routine life for the better part of a year. That trip to the store and exposure to strangers was a welcome jolt of newness. I had assumed I was in the doldrums because I missed my friends (I did). But apparently I was starved of the excitement of the unexpected and unpredictable.

Being deprived of novelty doesn’t just make us bored; it is actually bad for our brain, and for learning and memory. Don’t just take my word for it. Consider the experience of a group of genetically identical mice living for three months in an enriched environment, a multitiered mouse hotel with lots of space and opportunity for roaming around: in short, a mouse’s dream house.

Researchers at the Max Planck Research School in Berlin discovered that the mice who spent more time wandering and exploring their new digs had significantly greater neurogenesis in their hippocampus than their less adventurous mates. Exposure to novelty had prodded the hippocampus, a brain structure critical to memory and learning, to grow more neurons and enlarge. Because the mice were essentially clones sharing the same environment, their roaming behaviour probably caused the enhancement of hippocampal function. The implication of this experiment is powerful: being out and about in the world and having new experiences can promote the growth of the hippocampus and be cognitively beneficial. Those experiences need not be expensive or elite, like the opera.They can be as simple as that trip to buy an air conditioner.

Unlike those mice, we have not exactly been living a life of excitement, let alone enrichment, this past year. Why do you think we are all champing at the bit to “get out of jail”? Yes, we miss socialising with our friends, but we also crave the variety and stimulation of everyday life that the pandemic took away – for a good reason.

Humans evolved over millions of years to detect novel rewards and dangers in the environment – such as food, sex and predators – which conferred a big survival advantage in an unpredictable world. When we have a novel experience, we get a surge of dopamine in our reward pathway, which tells our brain something like: this is an important experience – remember it! That is why novelty, learning and memory are linked. We are more likely to learn in situations where there is a certain amount of novelty. It is also why getting young people back to the classroom is so important. Virtual learning is largely devoid of the spontaneous and unexpected experiences that happen in a classroom, and which help enhance cognition.

For young people, exposure to novelty is especially important because their neural circuits are being sculpted and are particularly sensitive to the effects of experience. This so-called critical period of learning is a finite opportunity; after a certain period of time, the window shuts, and it is much harder to make up for lost learning.

Novelty can help. Studies show that exposure to even a little novelty can enhance learning in kids and in adults. For example, researchers at the University of Buenos Aires showed that a simple novel experience, such as a 20-minute new music or science experience one hour before a regular class, could improve long-term memory of the lesson.

And a 2017 observational study of production workers found that those whose jobs involved more novel tasks, such as being challenged with unfamiliar problems, had faster mental processing and larger grey-matter volume in key cortical brain regions associated with executive function than workers whose job involved less novelty. Monotony isn’t just boring; it’s probably bad for your brain.

When the pandemic ends, it’s widely predicted there will be a rush to return to life. Some, though, who are socially reserved or anxious at baseline, may have experienced the quarantine as comfortable and may not be raring to join the party. For them, busting out of routine might feel anxiety-provoking, though the cognitive benefits of new experience are still worth it.

But for most, the pandemic year has shown us that novelty is critical to our overall wellbeing, from learning and memory to brain development and the feeling of being vividly alive. We can’t live without it.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: If you’re ecstatic after a trip to the shops, your brain is thanking you for the novelty | Health

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