What does novelty seeking mean?

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I had assumed that the two terms, “novelty seeking” and “new experiences”, were interchangeable.  I’ve now discovered that novelty seeking is much more than I’d first anticipated.

I recently saw the term, “novelty seeking”, in an article about chronic pain research.  The researchers proposed that the worry associated with chronic pain could change a sufferer’s personality, leading to less novelty seeking.  Some of the information in the article seemed counter-intuitive.  Why would more activity in a section of the brain lead to less of a particular type of physical activity?  I wanted to know more.

A history of novelty seeking

To begin, I consulted Wikipedia for a definition of novelty seeking and found an overwhelming explanation … that it “is a personality trait associated with exploratory activity in response to novel stimulation, impulsive decision making, extravagance in approach to reward cues, and quick loss of temper and avoidance of frustration.”  It didn’t sound appealing.

I looked further, seeking contrasts and opposites in the hope these would make things clearer.  In terms of its contrasts, novelty seeking is a type of openness that works in opposition to conscientiousness, reliability, persistence, harm avoidance and self-transcendence.

To simplify (if I can) … if I was prone to novelty seeking then I might also be less conscientiousness and reliable than others would like … or … if I was prone to novelty seeking then I wouldn’t care that my impulsive decision making might place me in harm’s way.

Please note: I am not prone to novelty seeking.

Early research into novelty seeking as a personality trait (in the 1990s) drew attention to its negative outcomes: the hyper and the addicted.  These days, the positive attributes are getting some attention.

The argument goes that the opposing traits, such as persistence and self-transcendence, are the mechanisms by which novelty seeking becomes a positive force.

Why we need to understand novelty seeking

It’s worth exploring this personality trait a little further because it can sneak up and bite us when we’re unaware.

For example, I came across an alarming media article while researching for this post.  A drug was prescribed to sufferers of Parkinson’s disease and restless leg syndrome. The drug helped control movement by mimicking the effects of dopamine in the brain.  This impacted the area of the brain associated with novelty seeking and created an unwanted side-effect.  Too much of a chemical rush resulted in unbridled novelty seeking that became anti-social risk-taking behaviour, debt and damage.

But novelty is one of those things that, when done appropriately, can bring us great benefits; two come readily to mind that I may need.

First, as bits of my body and mind age, harnessing novelty might keep me functional.  I remind myself repeatedly about the research I saw on TV, where the mice who were regularly given new toys had better memories for longer than the poor mice who were deliberately kept bored.  (There was also an exercise component, but that’s another post.)

Second, as the world gets ever more complicated, as technology and robotics take over more and more white-collar middle-class jobs, my ability to transition to new careers and new ways of doing things will be dependent upon my creativity.

Memory and creative insight are nurtured by our engagement with novelty.

Managing change is not novelty seeking

I rarely sought novelty, but I have actively sought change.  Change creates new experiences; once we work out how to keep from circling whatever dried up carcass of an idea or habit or attitude we should be leaving behind.

When managing change, either intentional or that forced upon me, I use the familiar to support my excursions into the unfamiliar.  As this new territory becomes increasingly comfortable, it then becomes a launching pad for further excursions into even more unfamiliar territory.

For example, embarking on this blog was novel.  Coming to terms with blogging software was the familiar territory.  As a process, it was no different to learning any software.  I’ve been doing that for years.  The unfamiliar territory was my digital camera.

Developing the blog has been a staged process, starting with simple and predominantly wordy presentations of ideas and events.  There were very few images.

I then used the increasingly familiar world of blogging to approach the unfamiliar; digital photography.  I learnt by participating in online challenges on other people’s photography sites.  I learnt by creating challenges for myself and writing about them.  The next step, just taken, was to move to a blog format that showcases images.  For each new post, I must include an illustrative or evocative image.

Now a little more comfortable with digital imagery, I’m branching out into digital video, I’m travelling more in search of images, and this week I purchased a flat-bed scanner so I can digitise the slides and prints of my youth.

All these new experiences are valuable but the managed approach means they fall short of the unexpected surprises required to stimulate the memory and creative insight centres of my brain.

To conclude

“Novelty seeking” and “new experiences” are not interchangeable terms.  Novelty seeking necessarily involves a hunt for something new.  However, new experiences don’t have to be the result of novelty seeking, regardless of whether we are actively engaging with new experiences.

In embracing change, I have activity sought out new experiences.  But the practice usually errs on the safe side, seeking to contain the unexpected and alarming.

It seems that, to exploit the benefits of the unexpected and the novel, this introvert must explore what it means to take novelty seeking by the hand, couple it with persistence and maybe throw in a little self-transcendence for good measure.

Self-transcendence?  Another new term!

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Novelty

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References

Tierney, J.  “What’s New? Exuberance for Novelty Has Benefits”, The New York Times, published 13 February 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/science/novelty-seeking-neophilia-can-be-a-predictor-of-well-being.html

Salleh, A.  “Chronic pain could change your personality”, published on ABC Science on 27 November 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/11/27/4112244.htm

Wikipedia, “Novelty Seeking”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novelty_seeking

Hagan, K.  “Parkinson’s disease sufferers win payout from Pfizer for drug linked to gambling, sex addiction”, Canberra Times, published 9 December 2014, http://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/health/parkinsons-disease-sufferers-win-payout-from-pfizer-for-drug-linked-to-gambling-sex-addiction-20141208-122jwk.html

OMIM, “Novelty Seeking Personality Trait”, http://www.omim.org/entry/601696

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