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Novelty: 4 Reasons to Get Out of Your Rut

by Jeanine Barone  

For some people, life feels like Groundhog Day, the movie in which Bill Murray relives the same day over and over. Every day they eat the same breakfast, take the same route to work, watch the same TV show, etc. In contrast, other people regularly seek out novel experiences—taking new classes, eating new foods, never going to the same vacation destination twice.

It’s great to have tried-and-true routines if they work for you and give you pleasure. But if you’re totally a creature of habit, perhaps it’s time to try some new things. Why? Interest in or love of new things, known as neophilia, is a trait associated with curiosity, exploration, and innovation that has served humans well throughout history.

Doing something new doesn’t mean it has to be something wild. It can mean exploring different parts of your city or area, going to work a new way, visiting an unfamiliar museum, or learning a new skill. Here are four specific ways in which novel activities may benefit you.

Novelty may enhance memory and learning

An area of the brain, the substantia nigra, has been dubbed the novelty center since it is activated by unfamiliar stimuli. This area exerts a major influence on learning because it is functionally linked to both the hippocampus (an area of the brain critical for learning and memory) and the amygdala (important in processing emotional information). That helps explain why some studies have found, for instance, that when people are shown both novel and familiar images, they’re more likely to remember both types than when they’re shown only familiar images. What’s more, novelty stimulates the secretion of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s rewards system, which can motivate us to explore more new things. Dopamine secretion also leads to new connections between nerve cells (neurons), something that’s important for learning to take place.

Novelty is associated with happiness and well-being

In a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2011, researchers had more than 1,000 people complete questionnaires about their health and temperament among other matters and found that three traits were linked with emotional, physical, and psychological well-being: persistence, novelty-seeking, and self-transcendence (which involves the expansion of personal boundaries). Other research has found that curious people tend to be happier; curiosity and novelty-seeking are closely linked.

Novelty may enhance creativity

Novelty-seeking is linked with creativity, according to a paper in Creativity Research Journal in 2013, in which people were asked to write about a novel experience or a familiar one and then were given a test of creative thinking. Those in the novelty group were more likely to produce original answers.

Novelty can help slow down time

Time seems to fly faster as we age, but engaging in new experiences can make time seem to slow down. Neuroscientist David Eagleman has conducted experiments involving participants’ perception of time. In one, people looked at a computer screen that rapidly showed repeated familiar images interspersed occasionally with novel ones. Though each image appeared for the same short interval, people reported that the novel images stayed on the monitor longer than the routine images. It’s likely that novelty caused the participants to pay greater attention to some images, thus making them seem to stall on the screen. In addition, repeated routine images may get “compressed” in the brain because it has already processed them, making them seem to fly by quicker. For young people, life is often full of novel experiences that cling to time, so it’s no wonder that days seem long and eventful, while for older folks, days tend to be filled with routine and familiar things, so days can pass as hours, and hours as minutes.

Also see 9 Creative Ways to Boost Creativity.