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EMBRACING A LIFESTYLE OF 'NOVELTY' AND 'CHALLENGE' to boost Brain Reserve

Ever wondered why some people continuously strive to learn something new while others are satisfied with what they know already?


What motivates such people who are always on the move to learn and relearn?


Do our genetics determine this drive for always seeking something new and unique? Or is it our social environment?


Let us explore what drives Novelty or new learning in these individuals and what science has to say about this aspect.


Novelty is a Latin word for ‘new.’ Being novel is the quality of being new, striking, or unusual. Novelty can also be referred to as a cultural occurrence or an individual’s subjective outlook. For example, the concept of novelty dance implies a dance type that is unusual, unique, or humorous. A novel architecture will include interesting structures with innovative designs. In cognitive psychology, novelty is considered a forerunner to attention, emotions, memory, and behaviour. Both genetics and our social environment influence our novelty-seeking behaviours.


Novelty---every time we experience something new, we feel fresh and energized. This is because we receive an influx of hormones like dopamine, vasopressin, or oxytocin from our brain cells. These hormones also make us feel more attentive about our activities. Novelty holds true to the saying “variety is the spice of life.” When we experience or involve ourselves in new activities, our brain gets activated differently. We feel satisfied experiencing rewards after every new exposure.

Moreover, brain activation or stimulation due to novelty helps in building a cognitive reserve for individuals. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s resistance to damage, that is, the ability of the brain to cope with the age-related declines it encounters. For example, many research studies have affirmed the role of novelty in increasing mental stimulation and decreasing the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Further, engaging in new tasks (novelty) acts as a workout regime for the brain, especially for the prefrontal cortex, that prevents cognitive challenges like memory loss or decreased attention span.


However, with novelty, comes distractions. Imagine sitting in front of your laptop and reading something new (novelty). As soon as it starts rewarding you (your read becomes interesting)—you get a notification on your phone: a distraction. The question is, how can we not get distracted while performing novel tasks. By ‘planning for novelty.’ Make sure that you are learning new things that you wish to learn. Questions like “what will I love to learn to get better at my hobby,” “what is my wish list for new experiences,” etc. will make your novelty meaningful. This is important because it will help you differentiate between just novelty that will spin you in a hundred different directions aimlessly and meaningful novelty that will help you shape your life. Thus, you become strategic and pay attention to only things in your life that will provide growth, level of advancement, and help build your cognitive reserve.


On the other end, we have challenges. Challenges create a competitive situation and demand an individual’s additional resources to overcome them. Be it a challenging game like Sudoko or an assignment at work, a challenging environment always facilitates growth and advancement in individuals. Though we face a lot of challenges in life, it’s mainly the meaningful ones that help us grow and contribute to our cognitive reserve.


But how do we know which challenge is meaningful and vice-versa? A meaningful challenge will have the following two characteristics:


a. Creative expression- the challenge that will assist in creatively expressing ourselves. For example, assignments where you feel engaged and have got an opportunity to contribute with new ideas. In this process, you get a chance to express your thoughts and emotions to others creatively.


b. Contribution- the challenge that assists you in contributing to the other members of your circle. Consider the previous example; you will feel enthusiastic when your creative ideas contribute to your entire team at the workplace. In this process, you start finding meaning in your assignment.

When it comes to cognitive reserve, challenging tasks bring about learning in individuals. This is important to note since learning changes the neural connections in the brain ----a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, additionally, increases one’s cognitive reserve that in turn contributes to a better brain health. Moreover, challenging games like sudoku, puzzles, word-games, chess, etc. also stimulate the frontal regions of the brain responsible for enhancing cognitive processes. For instance, sudoku: a game where you have to follow trails of certain numbers, relies on short-term memory and concentration. Apart from basic cognitive functions, these challenging games have a good chance to delay dementia and even slow its progression in older adults. Thus, just like novelty, challenges (be it a task or a game) also advance cognitive reserve in individuals.


The biggest question now is how you will implicate the roles of novelty and challenges in your life? If you practice adding more novelty in your life religiously, everything changes. For example, in relationships, you can explore new places together, new restaurants to eat, new activities to learn together, etc. These little activities not only add novelty to the relationship but also keep it fresh. Even for challenges, you may actively engage in harnessing your existing skills by asking yourself: How can I get better at what I am pursuing currently? What more do I need to become more competent? How can I challenge myself to perform better at my next project? What other challenging games can I master? These questions will not only energize you and keep you always on your toes but also help in building your cognitive reserve. You can start with challenges as simple as challenging your daily routine. If you are a right-handed person, try using your left hand when you brush your teeth the next morning. For the first few days, you will struggle, but as the neuronal formations occur, you will learn to do it smoothly.


Interestingly, individuals (middle-aged to older adults) can get training for maintaining and enhancing certain cognitive abilities. Learning new things every day can get taxing, especially if it's more challenging. But with the right cognitive training, such activities can just become a part of your lifestyle! Findings suggest that individuals could boost their memory with the assistance of cognitive training. This is promising especially for older adults since such training also impacts their quality of life. The ‘RESTART’ program is one such initiative. The following diagram shows how the RESTART program uses novelty and challenges to actualize your brain’s potential and promote wellbeing.


Further, there are other parameters, like nutrition, exercises, and health, that the RESTART program addresses along with novelty and challenge. Backed by evidence, this program offers cognitive training to individuals, right from middle-aged to older adults. It is a program to embrace a lifestyle that is conducive to enhancing the brain's cognitive reserve.


Adventure, creativity, and novelty…

Is human nature,

And I am a Human!

Journey is its fate,

And I am traveling it.”

~ Tahreen Rohat


References:

Banzhaf, W., Baumgaertner, B., Beslon, G., Doursat, R., Foster, J. A., McMullin, B., ... & White, R. (2016). Defining and simulating open-ended novelty: requirements, guidelines, and challenges. Theory in Biosciences, 135(3), 131-161.

Fissler, P., Küster, O., Schlee, W., & Kolassa, I. T. (2013). Novelty interventions to enhance broad cognitive abilities and prevent dementia: synergistic approaches for the facilitation of positive plastic change. In Progress in brain research (Vol. 207, pp. 403-434). Elsevier.

González-Cutre, D., Sicilia, Á., Sierra, A. C., Ferriz, R., & Hagger, M. S. (2016). Understanding the need for novelty from the perspective of self-determination theory. Personality and individual differences, 102, 159-169.

Schweizer, T. S. (2006). The psychology of novelty‐seeking, creativity and innovation: neurocognitive aspects within a work‐psychological perspective. Creativity and Innovation Management, 15(2), 164-172.

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