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October 23, 2011

The Urge to Experience, How We Respond to Novelty


Human beings once were localized to a a few locations on earth, and yet over time they explored and expanded. The need to travel and experience new areas and landscapes and discover new worlds is what led the polynesians to discover all the islands in the south pacific, Columbus to the new world, and Niel Armstrong to our own moon, and that same desire to experience the unknown is the topic of interest in Brian Knutson's and Jeffrey C. Cooper's article The Lure of the Unknown in the 51 volume, issue 3 of the August 3 2006 copy of the Neuron.

Before this study, the Ventral Tegmental Area and the Substantia Nigra were heavily implicated in the process of conferring salience onto a stimuli. For the purpose of this experiment, the researchers defined salience as one of 4 different pictures presented. One set of pictures depicted novel scenes, one set showed negative scenes, one set was behavioral in nature, as when showed the picture the subjects then were expected to perform a simple action, and one set were simply neutral, and repeated for the last portion of the experiment. These different pictures represented the different forms of salience that could be conferred onto such stimuli. It turns out that the novel pictures through use of fMRI showed the most activity in the VTA and SN, as well as portions of the striatum and the hippocampus, implicating that we place the most salience onto novel pictures and stimuli as opposed to others. Other pictures then showed increased activity in different regions of the brain, such as the negative stimulus activating the locus coeruleus and the amygdala while the neutral pictures activating the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate.

The question of memory stimulation was raised, and contrary to the prediction made due to the fact that the hippocampus was stimulated by novel pictures, memory of novel pictures was not higher than that of repeated pictures. However, an interesting outcome of a related study showed that repeated pictures with the prescence of a few novel pictures thrown in were granted a temporary memory boost, undetectable 1 day later but present after 20 minutes. This contrasted with studies showing that stimuli coupled with reward cues also received memory enhancements implies the possibility that novel stimuli elicit a reward response throughout the brain. Unfortunately the study did not have a category designated for positive pictures which could have played the role as the reward response and then compared to the novel pictures to look for any similarities in the response of the VTA and the SN, as well as the effect it has on memory to see whether novel pictures play reward roles.

These studies collectively form a new basis for further study into the human response to novelty, potentially discovering whether we gain a reward sensation from novelty and whether that even makes us go in search of it, just as historical examples such as Galileo and Niel Armstrong would seem to suggest in their descriptions of experiencing the novelties of space and the limits of the world.

Full Article: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306005575
Posted by      Christopher R. at 11:22 PM MDT
Tags: amygdala, fmri, memory

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