New experiences aid in learning and memory

Want to improve your memory? Need a way to study more effectively and learn more quickly? 

Try exposing your brain to something new. That's the conclusion of a recent study investigating the effect of novelty on learning and memory.

The study was conducted by researchers Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Duzel, at the University College of London (UCL). 

Their findings were published in the journal Neuron. Dr. Duzel, from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, believes that the data has meaningful implications for helping people with memory problems. 

It all hinges on a region in the midbrain, specifically the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area. This area of your brain is responsible for processing rewards and motivation. It's the department that hands out the cookies, so to speak, except in your brain, the ultimate reward is dopamine. The brain chemical dopamine is naturally released during pleasurable experiences like eating, sex, or any other enjoyable activity.

According to this study, encountering new information is also an enjoyable activity for the brain. When volunteers were introduced to unfamiliar images, activity increased in this midbrain area, releasing higher levels of dopamine.

This effect was demonstrated through a series of experiments.

In the first experiment, volunteers were shown images of different scenes and faces, both familiar and unfamiliar. Some of the images were "unusual," appearing only rarely, while others contained negative emotional content, like a car accident or an angry face. While subjects were looking at these images, their brain activity was being monitored with an fMRI scanner.

The results? People experienced increased midbrain activity when shown the new images. Only the new images produced this strong response, not the unusual or the emotional images.

The researchers were curious. Would this response be relative? Would completely new images produce a stronger midbrain response, while somewhat new images produced a somewhat strong response? They expected that less familiar information, when mixed in with well-known information, would also provoke a strong reward response from the midbrain.

To test this hypothesis, the experiment was repeated, with some of the images being less familiar and some more familiar. The results were surprising. Only brand new information caused strong activity in the midbrain area, stimulating the production of the reward chemical, dopamine. 

The final experiment focused on testing the memory of the participants. The volunteers were tested on the new, familiar, and very familiar images, both 20 minutes after viewing and a day later. Evidently, they performed best when new information had been combined with familiar information. Even the familiar information became easier to remember when it was learned alongside new facts. 

Why Novelty?

Dr. Duzel explains the process behind the brain's attraction to new things. "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." However, once the brain has identified a familiar stimulus, it no longer holds that same potential for reward, so the brain continues to seek out new things.

This idea has significant implications for lots of reasons!

For people with memory problems, it suggests new learning techniques. By reviewing familiar information alongside new material, the familiar information may prove easier to remember. So if you're studying for a test or prepping for an important meeting, try digging a little deeper with each review of the material.

But even if you don't have trouble remembering things, this research suggests a simple but important way for you to improve your lifestyle. 

The study's results underline a well-known aspect of the way people's minds work. As human beings, we love new things. We love novelty, variety, and change. How can you learn from the information here? Practice taking advantage of the enjoyable feelings produced by newness, and live a more positive lifestyle by seeking out new experiences.

Do Something New

How can you do something new, and introduce more novelty into your life?
The answer is different for every person. It depends on what sparks your curiosity. Try to make it a habit to seek out newness. Here are some suggestions on ways to break your routine and try something different.

  • Learn new things

You can take a class, just for fun. You can sign up for a workshop, a book club, or a discussion circle. Or you can visit your local library to pick out a book on an intriguing but unfamiliar topic.

  • Visit new places

Plan a trip to a foreign country. Or just explore an unfamiliar part of town. Schedule a visit to an unfamiliar museum, park, or restaurant.

  • Try new experiences

Sample new foods. Experiment with an untried hobby. Challenge your expectations by looking for new activities. 

A Take Away for Today

The brain is designed to seek out new possibilities. As a result, it responds to new stimuli in a positive way, rewarding new information with higher production of dopamine, the same chemical that rewards us during pleasurable experiences.

This research demonstrates what many of us probably already know -- that new experiences have a uniquely enjoyable and exciting effect on our mood and outlook. You can extend this awareness to your life right now, by seeking out new activities and experiences to keep your brain happy and your outlook fresh.

by Michael Lovitch


Bunzeck, N., & Duzel, E. (2006). Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA. Neuron, 51(3), 369-379