The pull of "new"

We have all experienced that exciting sensation of new things, wether a new item, a new person, a new situation, a new experience. Apparently, our draw towards "new" is hardwired. Can we harness aspects of our biology, such as the reward of new things, to live a fuller life? Can we train ourselves to notice how seeking new experiences might be driving us and to enjoy what we have more?

Recently, I attended a guest lecture by Dr. Wolfram Schulz from Cambridge University, a neuroscientist who has helped our understanding of the reward system in the brain related to dopamine. There was one aspect of his lecture that I thought was novel and powerful. Dopamine is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter and is involved in coordinating action related to rewards. It is one of the "feel good" neurotransmitters, and its networks are active when we are experience the pleasurable sensations of food, sex, social bonding and other "rewards".

Apparently, there is a default in our neurobiology whereby dopamine neurones fire when there is a novel stimuli. This happens really quickly. You see something that might seem new, and your reward system starts firing. Schulz explained that it is as though our body is readying itself to approach and receive a reward, getting the correct systems activated, preparing you for action. If the new stimuli ends up being neutral or negative, your quickly readjust and stop seeking it, don't engage with it, or move away.

In our current culture it is easy for all of us to constantly seek new experiences- and to be forever turning in a sort of hamster wheel. Whether it be the new bit of news or information from our smart phone, or buying the next new thing, trying the next new... You name it, we all have our tendencies and preferences. Are we being subconsciously driven by these inner inbuilt systems that have served our survival and yet might be less adaptive in our complex but generally safe environments? (I mean safe, as far as survival goes).

I am left thinking of the Buddhist maxim of living fully present in the moment, mindfully attending to every sensation, every perception and savouring each. I wonder if this really is an effective way to find novelty and to feel pleasantly. The present is always new. Placing our attention on the body sensations of how it feels to wash a glass, the soap, the temperature, the slipperiness , the sponge's texture, the varying sensations in our hands, even our breathing. Does being really present truly mean the difference between being satisfied and being bored or dissatisfied? How many moments are we passing by daily when we could really "feel good" in some way?

I have witnessed countless people being able to train their attention to focus on their bodies and emotions more and more. Emotional regulation and emotional freedom invariably come. Often, our experience of life is more pleasant, life becomes easier. I wonder if being in a continuous present, noticing what is new allows us to get more of that sweet sensation of small rewards? I wonder if feelings of satisfaction and happiness might be closer to us than we think? And I wonder whether our incessant search for bigger "new" experiences might actually be working against us, preventing us from fully savouring the smaller but cumulative new experiences?

Credit: Image courtesy of Matthew Tkocz.