Fans of the police procedural probably know a witness’s memory is less reliable if the crime involved a gun; the weapon’s presence concentrates our attention on that single detail. The singular focus is useful, given the threat to our survival. But experiments have shown that witnesses’ memories are just as unreliable if a bank robber is waving around a stick of celery instead of a firearm. It’s not the danger that commands attention—it’s that it’s an unexpected element in a familiar setting. Our brains home in on novelty above anything else.
Novelty, and how we respond to it, is the subject of Winifred Gallagher’s New: Understanding Our Need For Novelty and Change (Penguin).
“Our genius for responding to the new and different distinguishes us from all other creatures, saved us from extinction 80,000 years ago, and has fuelled our progress from the long epoch of the hunter-gatherers…into the information age,” writes Gallagher, the former psychology editor of American Health. Through a combination of genetics and the influence of our environments, we’ve become acutely and intrinsically aware of novelty (or the lack of it), sometimes to a fault.
That’s because our brains are in some ways best described not as information processors, but as surprise detectors, Gallagher argues. As a result, the novelty effect can be a key element in creative and innovative thinking. Recall the last problem that you ground away at for hours at a desk or a computer; the odds are good that a breakthrough came to you after you stepped away from it or gave up on it for the night. Perhaps the solution came to you on the way home, just as the special theory of relativity came together in Einstein’s head while riding a streetcar home from his office.
The reasons we work this way are rooted in evolutionary science. In the early days of Homo sapiens, the ability of our larger brains to identify and respond to novelty in a dangerous world was one of the crucial advantages we had over other hominids. And key to our brains’ responses to novelty is the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical not only integral to physical movement and to our ability to learn, but particularly to our senses of motivation and anticipation, and how we seek out and process new things. “Whenever you encounter something that’s enjoyable, like a glass of wine,” Gallagher writes, “or intriguingly novel, like a glamorous stranger at a neighborhood party, a spritz of dopamine jacks up your level of arousal, focuses you on that target, and mobilizes your explorative approach response—a symphonic collaboration that you experience as ‘Go for it!’”
Along with elements from our upbringing and environment, our individual dopamine profiles determine into which of Gallagher’s three categories we fall. Seventy to 80% of us are what Gallagher calls neophiles, scattered along a spectrum of being “neither scared stiff by too much novelty and change nor bored stiff by too little.” Another 10% to 15% are neophobes, “biased toward staying safe” rather than engaging with the new, to which they tend to respond cautiously or anxiously. And the remaining 10% to 15% have extreme levels of craving for new stimuli. Dubbed neophiliacs, their attraction to novelty can explain both “[their] talent for brainstorming and [their attraction] to pretty strangers, cocktails, and alluring information machines.” Neophiliacs are much more susceptible to boredom than are the rest of us, for example.
But, now that we’re all media-saturated and have an array of electronic gadgets at hand, who can reasonably claim boredom? In some ways that speaks to the heart of the current problem, what Gallagher calls a “crisis” of neophilia. We’ve lost touch with the reasons our brains seek out and respond to novelty in the ways they do, she believes. It’s not meant to push us to constantly seek entertainment, or to waste money on new products that offer little meaningful value beyond novelty, but to create new things, or adapt to change. We’re prone to distraction, sure, but that’s a point that’s been made elsewhere.
More useful are Gallagher’s suggestions for focusing our own neophilia. Wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum, there are benefits and drawbacks to it. The more neophobic among us can find new situations discomfiting, but their sensitivity to risk can make them extremely empathetic. Their neophilia can be cultivated by focusing on varying small routines, like eating different things for breakfast. Their natural tendencies by no means preclude their bringing new and valuable things into the world. Agatha Christie was a neophobe; so, probably, was Thomas Edison.
For those of us hungrier for the new, again, it’s both a good thing and a bad. “An intense attraction to novelty can lead to ‘Why not learn to tango?’” Gallagher writes, “but also to ‘Why not try meth?’” Neophilia is common among entrepreneurs, and also found in high-risk professions like firefighting. The trick for those nearer this end of the spectrum is focus, given they’re more prone to be distracted by junk stimuli.
And the volume of those junk stimuli, and the way they play off (or prey on) the hardwired nature of our brains, is the most resonant takeaway from New. According to one study, we now consume roughly 100,000 words every day, from various media—phone calls, billboard advertisements, conversations. That’s a 350% increase over what we consumed on an average day in 1980. As one expert tells Gallagher, “We’ve gone from being hunters and gatherers of information to being editors of it.” The onus is on us to preserve one of our greatest natural advantages by being judicious in which stimuli we indulge. To get the most out of our brains’ capacities, it serves us to maintain a sort of diet when it comes to novelty. In effect, we need to be careful about our intake of celery sticks—lest we become unable to recognize the guns.