Here’s a special tip from my Masters research thesis to you: Want to improve your memory and learning capacity? Try introducing novelty into your study habits.
Yes, novelty. We’re not talking plush novelty Winnie the Pooh toys, but the very idea of newness and unfamiliarity—something out of the ordinary. Yes, I know, it sounds odd—how could incorporating the unfamiliar into schoolwork make a difference? Well, hold your horses and let me explain.
A lengthy history of human exploration attests to what we call the “lure of the unknown.” But why, as humans, do we feel the need to explore something unfamiliar at all? Where does that drive come from? What is the psychological basis for our interest in things that are new to us?
Well, it turns out that the innate drive to explore our world and our surroundings—our interest in the new and unfamiliar—is hard-wired into the human brain. The process begins with the organic chemical often called the “reward chemical” because of its connection with feelings of pleasure—dopamine. According to neuroscientists Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel, encountering a novel situation or stimulus releases dopamine in the brain, which motivates us to keep exploring by producing a little “rush” of pleasure or excitement.
Research shows that encountering novelty activates strong activity in two major parts of the brain associated with memory function. Bunzeck and Düzel also suggest that novel stimuli or novel situations are better remembered than familiar stimuli or situations. Additionally, novelty is linked to greater memory by increasing “brain plasticity,” which is the brain’s ability to make new connections and expand its learning—literally your brain’s learning potential.
This research on novelty leads us to better understand the roots of learning. Based on these findings, if you incorporate something novel into your day or while studying, dopamine is released in your brain, which biologically piques your interest, inspires curiosity, and motivates you to explore and learn—and it’s neuroscience, so you can’t even help it.
How can novelty improve your memory and learning?
Want to start applying this fascinating neuroscience in your daily life? You can improve your memory and help make learning stick by introducing novelty into your studying. Here are some ideas to help you get going:
Introduce something novel: Whenever you’re reviewing old information you’ve learned before, add in a couple of new facts or concepts. Then, while reviewing, your brain will more easily recognize and recall the familiar information in comparison to the novelty of the new concepts.
Change up the environment: Your study environment provides limitless stimuli for your brain, so try counteracting the familiarity of what you’re studying by reviewing it in a new, less familiar environment. Changing the temperature or lighting in the room is also another great way of stimulating your brain!
Study after doing something new: Remember when I said novelty increases your brain’s plasticity? Capitalize on that effect and schedule your study time right after exploring or doing something novel to you. Try a new coffee place or explore a new street before studying so that your brain will be more awake to making connections.
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