Learn New Things for a Better Brain
by: Sherika Tenaya
From a very young age, precipitated by our entry into school, we condition ourselves to a life of sameness. Whether you are at school or at work, we learn to live our lives by habituated scheduling which we rarely deviate from and which often lulls us into a feeling of security or comfortability.
Some consider this to be an ideal way of living life, to always know what’s coming next around the riverbend, to be able to depend with certainty on one’s own expectations of where life is going. Others find it stifling, wishing to break free from the constraints of the repetitive, eagerly looking forward to that two week vacation which never quite seems long enough.
Regardless of which side of the fence you lie on, our brains are collectively hardwired to benefit, and even flourish, from novelty. Our ancestors lived lives of constant uncertainty: vulnerable to the ever-changing forces of nature such as weather, encounters with predatory animals, and continually plagued with the unknown of where to find the next meal or water.
Nothing was certain for them and so our brains adapted to learn from novel experiences, to be intrigued and inspired by coming across new objects in our environment, which in turn, triggered a highly motivated exploration of our environment.
In a highly intriguing study, researchers Bunzeck and Düzel examined the relationship of a particular region of the midbrain that is responsible for regulating our motivation and rewards-processing, and how that interplays with novel stimuli.
In the words of Dr. Emrah Düzel, “When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. The brain learns that the stimulus, once familiar, has no reward associated with it and so it loses its potential. For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.”
When it comes to learning, we learn best when we mix in newness to our endeavors. Kelly Howell, co-author of Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age, writes, “Newness and novelty excite the brain and create a stronger connection between neurons. Every time you have a new experience, a new synaptic connection forms. The more you use that connection, the stronger it gets. If you stop using the connection, the neurons are pruned away.”
Engaging in new activities can keep the brain engaged, motivated, and even strengthen its neuronal connections. However, not all new activities pack quite the same punch.
In this fascinating article, cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman distinguishes between the efficacy of “brain games”, gaining popularity in the media and sold as harbingers of salvation for the diminishing mind, and actually learning a new and challenging skill when he states, “While brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, challenging activities strengthen entire networks in the brain.”
It is important to note that these benefits affect long lasting brain health no matter what age you are. Whether young or old, your brain has an amazing capacity to continually grow and renew itself - even until the day you die.
So begin today by turning off social media , stepping out of your comfort zone, and focusing on a new activity or skill to engage in. Not only will this excite and stimulate your brain, but you will receive residual benefits by meeting new people and broadening your social circle, which invites the same novelty as the activity itself.