Brain Research Breakthrough: Why Extreme Sports Give Us a High


Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioral tendency in humans and animals. It makes sense to try new options as they may prove advantageous in the long run.'

Bianca Wittmann, University College London.

A primitive area of our brain makes us adventurous. New research suggests that new experience drives choice behavior in humans, even when the degree of familiarity with an option is completely unrelated to choice outcome. The research reveals fascinating insights into the brain mechanisms that underlie the tendency to explore, and even value, unfamiliar options.

Using brain scans to measure blood flow, British researchers discovered that a brain region known as the ventral striatum was more active when subjects chose unusual objects in controlled tests. The ventral striatum is involved in processing rewards in the brain through the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine.

Novelty seeking can be strongly adaptive because unfamiliarity tends to be associated with uncertainty and the potential for valuable outcomes.

"It can be advantageous for an animal to explore new parts of its environment because it might find valuable sources of food there," says study author Dr. Bianca C. Wittmann from University College London. In humans, this tendency is often exploited by manufacturers of everyday goods when they remarket identical products with novel packaging or advertising,

Scientists believe the existence of this age-old reward mechanism indicates there is an evolutionary advantage in sampling the unknown.

Previous research has suggested that novel stimuli may engage parts of the brain's reward system. However, no functional link to choice had yet been demonstrated. Dr. Wittmann and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the brain activity associated with novelty-related decision making. "We sought to test a computational hypothesis that brain systems associated with choice behavior use novelty bonuses to encourage exploration of unfamiliar options," explains co-author Dr. Nathaniel Daw.

Seeking new experiences is a primeval urge the study found. 'In humans, increased novelty-seeking may play a role in gambling and drug addiction, both of which are mediated by malfunctions in dopamine release,' said Nathaniel Daw, now at New York University, who also worked on the study.

The findings were published online in the journal Neuron.

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