Novelty Stokes Memory

eweber   December 8, 2008   14 Comments

A stranger calls when you expect it least, and that’s what you emphasize at the dinner table. You try a new Thai or Portuguese restaurant and its unique flavors linger long after dinner. A cat jumps out of nowhere onto your lap as you prepare notes for a meeting, and you share stunned reactions with the group. Not surprisingly, memory strengthens and the brain’s rejuvenated in the presence of novelty.  

How does it happen? Your brain’s hippocampus releases a shot of dopamine in  response to novelty. Anthony Grace at the University of Pittsburgh describes a feedback loop that involves a chemical and electrical interactions between dopamine and novel or unexpected events. This lively process appears to lock in memory, as it also engages the amygdala where the brain processes emotional information.

If novelty stokes memory and kick-starts brainpower, why are we so set in our ways? Henry David Thoreau bemoaned a lack of novelty observed daily: “There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness.” Was Thoreau describing your day or have you tried any of these 50 novelty adventures?

How do you override your brain’s default for ruts?

For some, that road not taken will focus on traveling to a new spot, trying new foods, befriending people from different backgrounds and learning from other beliefs. For others, it’s a call to creation. Perhaps a first novel like the one I’ve just completed, or painting classes, or drumming and dancing to beats of a different culture.

By the way, interesting new research shows that emotions survive after memories vanish.

14 thoughts on “Novelty Stokes Memory

  1. rummuser

    I overcome such ruts through sheer will power. What else is there?
    Often I have to drag myself out of inertia and ennui to do this.

    Once I get out of the rut, the pay off is remarkable. A dispassionate look at the payoffs enables the next occasion for a repeat performance. Memory!

    rummusers last blog post..Six Months of Blogging

  2. michael cardus

    For the unexpected our memories are suddenly pushed out of automatic. We spend much of our time in an auto pilot haze following our set responses to stimuli.
    When soomething shocks us out of the norm this creates a shift in the ideas.

    Great post.

  3. eweber Post author

    Wow Thanks for your kind words, Susan. Opening paragraph of my novel is:

    Outside the kitchen window, her team of huskies barely moved. Their heads tucked against the drive of the wind. Their tails turned and curled like snow that swirled and circled around their feet. She stood watching their nocturnal wakefulness, and cradled a warm cup of coffee in her hands. There was no denying, this was a winter of extremes, and Oonark detested the intellectual hardening of Arctic arteries all around her. She didn’t look forward to daily battles to coax her boys into another dark day at school. Neither did she want to arrive at her classroom early herself to prepare lessons, only to discover her boys had slept in and missed school again. With the sun still months away, and their father out hunting on an outpost camp — today, November 1st, she’d celebrate her 40th birthday as likely just another day at school. Netsiak likely wouldn’t make it back by nightfall, and she now wished she hadn’t insisted that was fine with her. It wasn’t. She drew in a deep breath, turned their bedroom doorknob and called the boys’ names, fully expecting silence to invade her early morning plans.

  4. eweber Post author

    It’s even more than memory, Ramana, and is a great pattern you have formed. Once we DO the act we’d hoped for the brain rewires for more of it. That’s why you remember the benefits to DO a second time.

  5. eweber Post author

    Thanks Mike, good to see you!

    An interesting take on “the unexpected our memories that are suddenly pushed out of automatic.”

    The key is “We spend much of our time in an auto pilot haze following our set responses to stimuli.” Here is where we literally hard-wire into the brain’s basal ganglia that set of responses. Over time, new reactions replace old through the brain’s rewiring of the new.

    That’s why is important to act “out of the norm” – since novel actions creates a shift in ideas, and renew the mind.

    Thanks for nudging us further, Mike!

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