When was the last time you did something new just because you felt like it? If you struggle to recall, then it is probably time you give something new a try. Not only does trying new things keep life exciting, but it may also be good for the brain. It is easy to get caught up in the pattern of day to day activities, and repetition strengthens specific neurological pathways in the brain more than others, depending on the frequency and context of the activities a person partakes in, and what they think about on a regular basis. Exposing the brain to new things has been shown to improve memory and create more neurological pathways, along with having other benefits.
How the Brain Responds to New Things
Using modern technology, such as fMRI imaging, neuroscientists can measure brain activity and use the data to study the way that our brains react in response to different stimuli. In 2006, Dr. Emrah Duzel conducted a study which showed that the dopamine pathways of the brain are activated when a person is exposed to something entirely new.
When you are are exposed to any stimulus, your brain first compares the information to existing understanding: searching for known patterns in your memory, likely centering around the hippocampus. When existing patterns do not match, the brain is forced to create new structures, and thus creates new “gray matter” in your brain. This also means when you learn something that you previously were against, your brain “rewrites” the connections and perceived relationships between pieces of information.
The substantia nigra/ventral sedmental area or SN/VTA is a region in the midbrain which controls the motivation and reward-processing of the brain, as well as dopamine levels. This area of the brain is also linked closely with the hippocampus and amygdalae, both of which are integral to memory and learning. According to Dr. Duzel, this part of the brain responds more to new ideas. His study showed that the entire area responded strongly to novel ideas. This means that exposing the brain to new information may raise dopamine levels and could also aid in learning and memory.
Dr. Duzel explained the way that new information impacted the brain like this:
“We thought that less familiar information would stand out as being significant when mixed with well-learnt, very familiar information and so activate the midbrain region just as strongly as absolutely new information. That was not the case. Only completely new things cause strong activity in the midbrain area.”
Whether you try something extreme, like skydiving, or something simple, like a new type of food; experimenting with novel ideas keeps life interesting and can even improve brain health. Although the world runs on routines, habits, and expectations, this is not necessarily the best way for the brain to reach its full potential. According to aforementioned studies, exposing the brain to new things is both a great way to be happier, learn more, and to improve memory.
Basically, the science shows that exposing yourself to completely new ideas helps to stimulate the brain and aid in further developement. Trying new things can also be really fun! The human brain’s affinity for efficiency can be a blessing as well as a curse, because people get stuck in routines they do not really want. The good news is that with a little bit of work, you can free yourself of these routines and expectations. Once you are free of the boring and mundane, your brain is free to explore new ideas and strengthen new and different neurological pathways. So next time you consider stepping out of your comfort zone to try something: do it. Take the chance to expand your consciousness and you will likely be thankful for it later.