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Giving The Brain Something The Brain Likes: Novelty

Posted in Blog by Elizabeth Neeld, Joie de Vivre: Enjoying Life

When I was writing the book Tough Transitions, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Gregory Berns, who holds the Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics and Director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta.

What Lights Up the Brain?

What Lights Up the Brain?

In our conversation, Dr. Berns talked about his research on the brain. He said he was working to discover what kinds of activities light up the brain in a positive way so that a person experiences a sense of happiness or contentment or satisfaction.

Dr. Berns told me that one thing had already become clear to him in his research: the brain really likes novelty. In experiments, Dr. Berns discovered that when an individual thinks or does something new, the brain lights up in a way that results in a positive experience for that individual.

After Dr. Berns and I finished our conversation, I asked myself, “If the brain really likes novelty, what does that mean?” So I looked up novelty in the thesaurus and found many words, including these:

unusual, unfamiliar, fresh,
imaginative, strange, different, untried


That seemed clear enough.

And Dr. Berns had said that if the brain gets what it likes—novelty– a person experiences a sense of happiness or contentment or satisfaction.

So, surely that made novelty worth pursuing.

“Then, what’s between absence of novelty and experiencing novelty,” I thought?

Intention. Deliberately creating novelty. Waking up. Realizing the benefits of having novelty in life and consciously doing or thinking the novel.

I asked a few people what they had deliberately done or thought lately that they would call “novelty”?

One said she had never grown anything in her life but decided this past spring to plant vegetables in pots up on her roof.

Another, after reading Little Money Street, a book about gypsy music in the south of France, had bought the CD Ida y Vuelta by the world-famous gypsy band, Tekameli, and was discovering a whole new universe of music.

One friend with degrees in communications and psychology who works in the field of development had just registered for a continuing education course in astronomy…after picking up at a bed and breakfast a National Geographic with a cover story on the planets.

Probably the most introverted person I know pushed herself to set up a Facebook page and is captivated by all the surprises and unexpected connections of social networking.

Could going on a picnic be novel? Well, it was for one person I asked. He said he had not been on a picnic in more than sixteen years; and just this week he and his wife, on the spur of the moment, grabbed this and that from the refrigerator and drove an hour to a state park where they picnicked on one of those old-fashioned wooden tables that require you to climb over the attached benches to put your legs under the table. (“Great fun!” he reported)

A couple said they went to their first ballet a few Sunday afternoons ago on a whim. Another person is about to go abroad for a few months’ study and is investigating the world of blogging, in case that is something she wants to learn to set up and do while she’s away. A lawyer friend is surprising all of us who know him by going on a solitary walk-about for a month.

And for me?

Well, I’ve registered for the first drama course I’ve ever taken in my life—“Your Public Voice,” offered by my local community course. Class starts a week from tomorrow…and I have to say I have a bit of anxiety about what I’m getting myself into. But then I remember my conversation with Gregory Berns and am willing to take the doctor at his word: if the brain gets what it likes—novelty—the brain lights up and a person experiences a sense of happiness or contentment or satisfaction.

Note: Dr. Gregory Berns’ went on to write a book on his brain research: Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment. He has also written a book called Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently which was named by Fast Company as one of the best business books of 2008.

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights to anyone whose life is in a time of transition, change, grief and loss of any kind. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

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