• Neophilia, or novelty-seeking, is a personality trait that we all share. It’s an essential part of who we are as human beings. 
  • However, a specific part of the brain called the thalamic pulvinar may contribute to some people being more apt to seek out new experiences than others. 
  • While novelty-seeking is a healthy trait in moderation, those with high novelty-seeking tendencies are at risk of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. 
  • When novelty-seeking leads to negative consequences, some people adopt a personality trait known as harm avoidance, the act of intentionally navigating around potentially bad experiences. 
  • Too much harm avoidance can be a bad thing and may lead to many of the same negative consequences of excessive novelty seeking.
  • Therefore, finding a balance between novelty-seeking and harm avoidance might be the healthiest approach; remaining open to new experiences, but using judgment to avoid unhealthy outcomes or situations.

I can specifically recall eating shrimp-fried rice for the first time (it’s still my favorite food) at seven years old. I was blown away by the fact that food could taste that amazing. On the other end of the spectrum, I can remember my first solo camping trip in Bridger mountain range of Montana and the adrenaline I felt after accidentally disturbing a grizzly bear, and the feeling of my heart pounding in my ears as it rumbled away into the brush alongside the trail. 

You get it; those experiences are completely, 100% different, but trying new food and running into a grizzly bear have the potential to end unpleasantly. I could’ve hated eating shrimp-fried rice—and I could’ve been eaten by the bear. Thankfully, I ended up enjoying those experiences and the memories they left me with. Consider the first encounter with your favorite album, food, hobby, person–you name it. Chances are, you remember the first time you experienced whatever that favorite thing is, and those memories associated with it probably feel good.

That’s the magic of neophilia, otherwise known as novelty-seeking. Novelty-seeking isn’t just about chasing down thrills. It’s about the subtle risks we all take every time we try something new. Even simple things, from actually talking to your next-door neighbor to trying out a new coffee shop, come with the risk of being an experience that you may not enjoy. 

While taking a chance might not always be comfortable, according to psychological research, novelty-seeking (if done correctly) may come with more rewards than risks. And when it’s all said and done, you may be more of a neophiliac than you think.  

The Biology Behind Novelty-Seeking

Part of our evolution as humans has been driven by our willingness to take a chance; we’re natural explorers. But according to biological research, there’s a certain area of our brain that may determine how likely we are to enjoy new things. A portion of the brain known as the thalamic pulvinar may be a predictor of novelty-seeking behavior, depending on the gray matter density of this region. 

Scientists in this study noted that individuals with higher novelty-seeking tendencies often had denser left portions of their thalamic pulvinar. They also reported that people with high novelty-seeking tendencies are typically enthusiastic, driven by their accomplishments, and are often highly emotionally sensitive. These unique characteristics make people who are novelty seekers more likely to be rewarded with positive experiences by trying new things. However, novelty-seeking comes with a price if things go too far.

The researchers also indicated that novelty-seeking in excess can be linked to harmful mental health conditions such as: 

  • Alcohol and drug addiction
  • Increased tobacco usage
  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Gambling addiction

When it comes to looking for the thrill of new experiences, it may be best to find a balance between stepping out of your comfort zone and engaging in activities that are actually healthy for your overall well-being.   

How Our Perspective on Life Shapes Our Actions

Our predisposition to try out new things has a lot to do with how we view our lives in terms of success. In a 2019 study, researchers identified two modes of thinking that people commonly adopt as life perspectives. 

  • The “top-down” approach: Those who see themselves as having the final say on whether they are successful or not may use the top-down method of thinking. If you find that you’d prefer to examine your own personality traits and intentions as a way to determine your success, then you most likely think using the top-down approach. 
  • The “bottom-up” approach: You might fall into this category if you view your life as the culmination of your achievements and failures, personal relationships, and the impact you’ve made on the world around you. If you feel as though events and people’s opinions about you are the driving force behind your life, then you might be using the bottom-up approach. With this school of thought, other things (not you), decide whether you are successful. 

If you fit into the top-down category, you’re probably more likely to seek out new experiences, because your own subjective belief system comes before anything else. In other words, this method of thinking may offer a lot more freedom. If you view yourself and life around you from the bottom-up perspective, then you’re probably more cautious, and hold other’s opinions in higher regard. Ultimately, neither viewpoint is better than the other. 

The Balance Between Novelty-Seeking and Harm Avoidance

Standing in stark contrast to novelty-seeking is the practice of harm avoidance: It’s a psychological term that refers to one’s desire to avoid taking risks. While the intention of harm avoidance is to remain safe, people with this personality trait often take things too far and can develop depression, anxiety, and often encounter difficulty feeling secure in their personal relationships. 

For some people, new experiences can be exciting; for others they’re terrifying. But regardless of who we are, we can’t avoid the curve balls life throws us every now and then. An article published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that big events with negative results such as losing one’s job often result in a person feeling less motivated to take risks afterward. Why? Because our brain is more likely to focus and reflect on negative experiences than positive ones as a safety mechanism. In other words, it’s a subconscious form of harm avoidance. 

To find your balance between novelty-seeking and harm avoidance, consider this: If you never took chances, you wouldn’t have a lot of the great things that you have today. And bad outcomes aren’t always our fault. Viewing them from a growth mindset instead of from a viewpoint that focuses on failure may be helpful in getting over our shortcomings and regrets about mistakes we’ve made. 

Ultimately, Novelty-seeking Teaches Us to Value Our Positive Experiences 

Most of us won’t ever know whether our thalamic pulvinar is looking dense or sparse, but most people can tell you what their favorite food is. They can tell you where they met their partner, their most exciting story, their luckiest day. When the experiences are positive, novelty-seeking can really pay off. We don’t always think about the risks we’re taking when we’re busy finding the things that we like and dislike, but novelty-seeking is in our DNA. 

So, it might not matter whether you view your life experience from the top-down or the bottom-up. Novelty-seeking is part of who we are—and without that trait, our lives would be far less exciting. Plus, I would’ve never known just how fantastic shrimp-fried rice is. 

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