We’ve already written about the importance of vacations as a means of looking after your physical and mental health (click here to read more). Today we’re going to talk about some of the effects a vacation and novelty may have on your brain.
Close your eyes and think back to the best vacation you ever had. Concentrate on all of the sights, smells, sounds and tastes. Do you feel as though you are experiencing it all again? Can you almost smell that busy marketplace/the beach/the city fumes just by remembering?
Chances are that many of you are remembering a vacation that was in some way novel. It might be the first time you had travelled to that location, the first time you travelled at all or the first time you experienced a familiar place in a new way. This is because our brains love novelty and when something is novel we pay attention. If you measure brain activity in humans or animals while viewing something familiar and then while viewing something novel there is a huge spike in activity for the novel object compared to the familiar [1, 2]. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense because anything new in the environment is a potential threat. Our primate ancestors who immediately noticed a dark, crouching shadow behind the tree they lived in were more likely to survive than those who carried on unperturbed by the new intrusion. Of course, being aware of changes to our immediate environment is still a good survival tactic but recent research has shown that the effects of novelty on the brain may be even more interesting thanks to knock-on effects on two areas: the memory centre and the reward centre.
Novelty is one key to keeping your mind interested and your brain healthy..
Novelty boosts memory.
Exploring a novel environment causes changes to the brain that enhance learning. This doesn’t just mean that you are more likely to remember an unusual experience because it was unusual but that your brain is more likely to remember unrelated information too. One study put some human participants in a virtual reality environment which was familiar to them and other participants in an environment which was new to them. They then gave them a list of words to remember. Those who had been exploring the novel environment had better memories than those who had been walking around the familiar environment . Animal studies have shown that when rats explore novel environments it changes to the neurons in their memory centres helping them to remember more . So your strong memories of that great vacation may have been helped along by a nice dose of novelty that strengthened the memory centre of your brain. It’s not only memory that is helped along by novelty, however, but also the reward system.
Novelty rewards us.
When we view something new the reward centres of our brain are activated and a big dose of dopamine, the reward drug of the brain, is released . This isn’t simply because we are happy to see something new, however, instead the dopamine motivates us to continue exploring in search of new rewards . Studies have shown that the mere anticipation of novelty can release dopamine which is why just thinking about that upcoming vacation when you’re sitting in a rainy office gives you a nice warm glow. The interaction between novelty and the reward system is called the ‘exploration bonus’ or the ‘novelty bonus’ by researchers . It’s likely an adaptive evolutionary response because species that have a drive to explore new environments and opportunities will be better able to survive adversity. Indeed even in today’s world curious older (human) adults live longer than non-curious adults !#
So whether you’re off on an adrenaline-inducing adventure or merely eagerly anticipating trying out that new bar in a familiar town, novelty is one key to keeping your mind interested and your brain healthy while on vacation.
- Li, L., E.K. Miller, and R. Desimone, The representation of stimulus familiarity in anterior inferior temporal cortex. Journal of neurophysiology, 1993. 69(6): p. 1918-1929.
- Tulving, E., et al., Novelty encoding networks in the human brain: positron emission tomography data. NeuroReport, 1994. 5(18): p. 2525-2528.
- Schomaker, J., M.L. van Bronkhorst, and M. Meeter, Exploring a novel environment improves motivation and promotes recall of words. Frontiers in psychology, 2014. 5.
- Davis, C.D., F.L. Jones, and B.E. Derrick, Novel environments enhance the induction and maintenance of long-term potentiation in the dentate gyrus. The Journal of neuroscience, 2004. 24(29): p. 6497-6506.
- Bunzeck, N., et al., Contextual interaction between novelty and reward processing within the mesolimbic system. Human brain mapping, 2012. 33(6): p. 1309-1324.
- Schomaker, J. and M. Meeter, Short-and long-lasting consequences of novelty, deviance and surprise on brain and cognition. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2015. 55: p. 268-279.
7. Swan, G.E. and D. Carmelli, Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging, 1996. 11(3): p. 449.