New Year, New Brain: How the Novelty of New Experiences Grows Your Brain
The new year has arrived, and with it, often a search for newness, because our brains seek out novelty.
You know, that buzz when you change your haircut or buy a new car?
Maybe some of you have gotten your newness buzz from a new gadget received at the holidays.
Maybe you are buoyed by the newness of resolutions and goals set thoughtfully for the new year. However, others may approach the new year a little more warily.
Maybe you aren’t the resolution type. Maybe you have yet to embrace the benefits of goal setting
Maybe the onset of the new year feels like the approach of more of the same and a slide into the winter doldrums.
If you haven’t jumped on the resolution or goal-setting bandwagon, even a more modest commitment to searching out new experiences could grow your brain and give you a boost.
Why are new experiences important?
How The Brain Reacts to Experience
To understand how new experiences can positively impact our brains, we first have to understand (a little) about how the complex mind works.
Here’s a watered-down, Brain 101 explanation.
A neuron, building block of the brain, is “a specialized nerve cell that receives, processes, and transmits information to other cells in the body,” according to allpsych.com.
The spaces between the neurons are called synapses, where electrical or chemical signals are passed between neurons. When we experience, emote, or learn, pathways across synapses are created between neurons.
Kendra Chery of Verywellmind.com explains, “Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories.” This brain plasticity (or malleability) allows our brains to grow and change through adulthood.
Young children have significantly more neural connections than adults. Children make these pathways freely and easily. You know, the kid who picks up a musical instrument with ease, while as an adult, you’d struggle.
However, with a little more effort, adults still have the ability to develop new neural connections following novel experiences. Even victims of brain trauma or stroke who have re-captured their losses or have adapted prove the capacity of the brain to change and grow.
Why New Experiences Benefit Your Brain
Novelty aids learning and memory.
Exposing yourself to novel stimuli can actually support better learning and memory.
The area of the midbrain that recognizes novel stimuli is closely linked to the parts of the brain that are critical in learning and memory. There are multiple synapses at each neuron, and when neurons are used/stimulated, new synapses grow.
“When the brain forms memories or learns a new task, it encodes the new information by tuning the connections between neurons. This is how your brain links ideas, thoughts, or concepts,” according to bestbrainpossible.com.
Novelty is motivating.
New experiences also feel good. Stimulated by absolute novel experiences (never seen before), your brain actually releases dopamine, a chemical that signals either how desirable or how aversive a particular outcome is. That signal motivates (or de-motivates) a person from pursuing that outcome.
Researchers Bunzeck and Düzel found that novelty itself is a motivator to explore in search of a reward. With each new experience, you will be motivated to explore more, which is an excellent loop for growth and positivity.
Novelty can slow cognitive aging.
You’ve heard the phrase “use it or lose it” with respect to your muscles. The brain is no different.
Over time, neural pathways used often become thick and learning entrenched. Pathways not used are “pruned” to help us dismiss less relevant stimuli.
You have to continue to engage your brain to keep pathways active and functioning optimally. However, according to the Harvard Health Blog, it’s not enough to do an occasional brain game for your brain to reap the benefit.
Engaging in new learning, especially more complex learning (like a second language, a class--no matter if it’s history, painting, or auto maintenance) gives your brain the biggest boost and slows its cognitive aging.
Now that we’ve talked about the why, let’s look at the how. While the possibilities are virtually endless here are five ideas for ways to grow your brain.
Five Tips to Grow Your Brain
Tip 1: Check out TED talks.
There’s an incredible diversity of talks on a multitude of topics—in typically 10-20 minutes. Challenge yourself to listen to a talk that might not normally grab your interest.
It might just spark a question, a new thought, or a new opinion on a topic. Could even be a conversation starter at your next dinner party.
You can browse or check out this curated list of Top 10 TED Talks of 2018.
Tip 2: Use your non-dominant hand.
We are creatures of habit, and so is our brain. Shake your brain up a bit by using your non-dominant hand. By doing so, you force the non-dominate hemisphere of your brain into action and develop new neural pathways.
Everything from stirring, texting, brushing, vacuuming, buttering bread, opening doors.... anything you can safely complete with your off hand.
Just 30 minutes a day can stimulate your brain.
Tip 3: Take a docent-led tour at a gallery or museum.
If you’re not usually a museum/gallery guy or gal, this could be your perfect novelty, especially if the content is novel to you.
Note: strolling through passively won’t give your brain a boost. Find a docent-led tour.
Having an expert guide you through the exhibits, and share insights and answer questions can help you truly engage in the material and get the most of your visit.
Better yet, take a friend with whom you can discuss the experience to further cement the learning.
Tip 4: Travel somewhere new.
If you needed an excuse to take those vacation days, here it is.
Paul Nussbaum from the University of Pittsburgh states that by exposing your brain to a novel and complex environment, you’re encouraging brain growth.
Even a short weekend away to a new city, out of your normal routine, does the trick.
Tip 5: Take a class.
Whether you want to learn Chinese, learn how to throw pottery, or learn new computer software, engaging in complex learning develops new connections in your brain.
While taking a class is clearly a more substantial time commitment, the dividends paid could be well worth it, as you not only ignite your brain but ignite interest in and knowledge of a new subject area.
While you are tapping into new experiences to rejuvenate your brain, look for new tools (or new-to-you functionality on an existing tool) to really get cracking in the new year.
Leveraging the multifaceted iStratus DayPlanner app can streamline work tasks, integrate complex schedules, access encrypted documents on-the-go, and more.