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Adding newness to your life can help promote focus, enhance love
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by Elizabeth Marglin
Updated Sep 28, 2022
You take the same route to work, hit the same happy hour on Fridays, and like to spend Sunday mornings over a cup of coffee and the newspaper. But while familiarity may induce comfort, it can also breed forgetfulness. Everything starts to blur together in the haze of sameness. Especially as we age, we should look to novelty to shake things up. A growing body of research suggests that novelty actually alters brain chemistry: New experiences stimulate the brain with the feel-good chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as a chemical that helps encode new memories. “Novelty has a robust and complex response in our brains that we can use to modulate our memories in a lot of ways,” says Katherine Duncan of the University of Toronto. Adding a bit of novelty to your life can help create more satisfying relationships, increased retention and sharper memories.
Fan the flames of romance
The experience of shared novelty can rekindle the spark of romance. If you can find ways to inject novelty into your long-term relationship, you can help recreate the dopamine surges that characterized your relationship when everything was new. A breakthrough early study by Arthur Aron, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on the effect of novelty on relationships studied the impacts of a weekly date night over the course of 10 weeks. In one group, the couples did familiar but pleasant activities. In the other group, the couples were instructed to seek out exciting and novel activities that were unusual for them, such as concerts, hiking or dancing. Couples in the “exciting” date-night group experienced significantly higher levels of marital satisfaction than those who played it safe on their dates. Novelty arouses the brain in pleasurable ways that can offset the boredom that can trouble long-established couples.
Retain information longer
Pair learning with any kind of dopamine-inducing experience, and you may be able to retain the information for much longer. “Dopamine can strengthen brain synapses and stop the synapses from fading,” said John Lisman, a professor of biology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who studied the mechanisms of memory on mice. Lisman noted that both a reward, such as sweets, as well as novelty could trigger a dopamine response that can enhance memory. While human studies on the effects of novelty on the brain are few, one 2006 study published in Neuron found that the midbrain has a big response to novelty and very little response to the familiar. Subjects were shown a series of images while their brain activity was analyzed using an fMRI brain scanner. The images included rare and emotional images, but only the images that were completely new activated the midbrain. The takeaway to recruiting dopamine as a memory aid? “The research suggests if you want to strengthen a synapse at the time you are trying to learn something, give yourself a reward, such as a nice cookie” or try learning in a new, unfamiliar environment, Lisman said. (Editor’s note: John Lisman died in October 2017, shortly after our writer’s interview with him.)
Create stronger memories
Novelty creates a frame of mind favorable to memory formation, Duncan says. Studies have found novelty triggers a flood of other neurochemicals beyond dopamine, such as higher levels of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (ACh) that helps encode memories. “Higher levels of ACh correlate with external attention, such as taking in your environment and forming new memories,” Duncan says. Low levels of this neurotransmitter, on the other hand, correspond with retrieving information, which requires a more internal focus. Levels of the ACh neurotransmitter change quite a lot over a person’s life span: Children have high levels, but those levels tend to decrease as we grow older, Duncan says. Her 2017 research, in which subjects were shown images that were either familiar or novel, suggests that novel images enhance the ability to form new memories, while familiar images enhance the ability to access and use memory. “My work suggests context is really important for whether you are well-positioned to form a memory or retrieve it,” Duncan says. “If you are visiting with some loved ones, for example, and want to be form a long-lasting memory of that experience, it’s a good idea to inject some novelty into that visit.”
• “Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2000. Using a questionnaire, in-person survey and three experiments, researchers found that participating in a shared novel and arousing activity led to increased relationship quality in couples. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA,” Neuron, August 2006. In this study, researchers conducted five experiments, two of which used functional MRI, that showed midbrain activation was driven by novelty rather than rareness, negative emotion or familiarity. Read the full study.
• “Memory states influence value-based decisions,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, November 2016. In this study, researchers conducted three experiments with 94 total participants to investigate how memories influence decisions. Results showed that the use of memories to influence decision-making depended on the context of the decision. Familiar contexts led to memory retrieval, while novel contexts led to memory encoding. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
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