Newness Factor Weighs in on Brain

"It's important to try things out," Daw says. "If you find that there's a new thing in the world like a new place to visit, a new product or a new kind of food, and it turns out you like it, that's good."

This novelty seeking behavior helps us explore different avenues to keep learning and to expand our social circles.

"In essence, we have an appetite for new situations and new solutions," Spiegel says.

At the same time, our need for the new can be exploited and might mistakenly direct us to the familiar.

"Advertisers know there is an attraction to novelty," Spiegel says. A slight change in a product's packaging might get us to buy it — even when it's actually the same old product inside the box.

"The brain's taking a shortcut that is usually a pretty good way of directing us toward new things, but it can be tricked," Daw says.

And too much of a good thing in the form of an addiction to novelty may get us in trouble, Spiegel says. It could be behind behaviors such as drug abuse and infidelity.

"Obviously you want to seek out things that provide you pleasure … but drug addictions and addictive behavior can overexploit these reward systems," says Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Miller says that more studies like this one are crucial for researchers to understand the inner workings of the brain, including the changes involved with addictions and conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"To come up with cures," he says, "we need to know what drives people into these behaviors."

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