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Open To Novelty

Open to Novelty
When was the last time you decided to do something new? Something others your age might consider out of character for whom you have become? When we were younger, most of us had some kind of plan to systematically explore new things and sample all sorts of new stuff. We did it with the music we listened to, the food we ate, the people we interacted with, the art we looked at, and the clothes we wore. What happened to us? How did we lose our capacity to be open to novelty?

At first blush, many of you may think that this question is absurd. It's not. Many social scientists spend their entire career trying to understand our closure to novelty. So far, no one has succeeded.

A study in music preference shows that on average, people who arrive at their taste in music while under twenty-years of age, hold on to it forever. If you haven't been exposed to a specific type of music (and decided that you liked the music) by the age of thirty-five, there is a 95% chance that you won't give it a try for as long as you live. Food is another interesting study area. Research has shown that at about twenty-three years old, the average person tries sushi and decides if they like it or not. However, if you have not tried sushi by the age of thirty-nine and decided that you liked it, there is a 95% chance you will never attempt to eat it. Trends in fashion can lead to huge retail revenue. Have you ever heard someone say, "That would look better on a younger person." I have. Turns out the average age of people getting their tongues pierced is eighteen. If by the age of twenty-three you have not had your tongue pierced, there is a 95% chance you won't consider it in your future. Maybe you’ll try a new hairdo now and then, but not a tongue piercing.

We seem to be open to novelty early in our lives; then something happens to us as we age. Fashion, food, music, entertainment, relationships, and all sorts of other human-interest areas have different closure to novelty shut-off ages. The phenomenon occurs everywhere and in every aspect of our lives. Creative output greatly declines over time. It's not just the great scientists who begin a creative decline in their late twenties or early thirties; it is composers, writers, poets, visual artists, film makers, engineers, architects and many others who lose their desire to try new things. Poets write less lines of poetry each year, musicians write fewer songs.

There is substantial evidence that great minds, those men and women who are considered eminent in their fields, are less open to someone else's novelty as they get older. In fact, it seems as if eminence is the kiss of death for openness to new ideas; pioneers in their fields tend to rebel against other scientists who explore logical extensions of their reformations. This seems odd since they started the transformation in the first place. What is that about?

There is dogma in every field of inquiry. When I was a medical student, it was an accepted neuroscientific fact that the brain lost 10,000 neurons every day after we turned twenty-one years of age. I thought I would have the cognitive function of a hermit crab by the time I was sixty-five years old. Today we realize that those early neuroscientists were mistaken. Their ideas were sheer poppy cock. We lose some neurons in our hippocampus and frontal cortex over the years, but our brains can get better as we age. The truth is that over time the brain can generate all kinds of new neurons, and synaptic connections between neurons, if we allow ourselves to be stimulated with novel and enriched environments.

Psychologists have their own ideas. Researchers have determined that our loss of openness to novelty is related to our disciplinary age, not our chronological age. This means that the longer we work in the same discipline, the more closed we are to novelty. If we change disciplines frequently, our loss to novelty is less pronounced. We can reset our clocks.

There is research to suggest that peer influences and peer socialization may have something to do with this phenomenon. Maybe age-group identifications and generational distinctions could be a factor -- but it doesn't explain the lack of openness to new things. Rats exhibit similar behavior. Infant rats are cautious about eating new foods. Adolescent and young adult rats eat almost anything in sight. Older rats stop eating new foods, regardless of their appetite. It's the younger rats that try new foodstuffs, but I doubt they’re trying to outrage their parents.

Bottom line, we do not know why we lose our openness to novelty as we age. I see it every day when I ask patients to make changes in their lives that will benefit their health. Sometimes simple requests are met with bewilderment or outrage. It was strange to discover that asking someone to substitute mashed cauliflower for mashed potatoes is tantamount to asking them to walk naked down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Perhaps we should all do that once in a lifetime. Physicians are greatly plagued by the lack of openness to novelty, especially after they leave residency. Throughout their entire careers, they seldom change their practice habits.

I believe closing to novelty is something everyone should strongly resist. Try something new every day, or at the very least once a month. It might just lead you on to something else new.

An open mind leads to an open heart.

Doc

Posted by Amanda Sanders at 1:58 PM
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