New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change – Book Review

by ChristinaPilkington on August 18, 2012 · 0 comments

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I just finished reading a new book called New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change by Winifred Gallagher.

As soon as I saw the title of the book, it immediately caught my attention. So much of interest-led learning for me is about discovering new things, exploring new places and learning new skills.

The book opens up with the statement that we are biologically wired for novelty and change. This makes sense. It’s our ability to notice the new and unusual that alerts us to danger, allows us to come up with new innovations and fuels our creativity.

But we all have degrees of comfort with newness. A small percentage of people are neophiliacs – extreme novelty-seekers who constantly seek out new sources for stimulation. Another small percentage of people are neophobes- those who respond to newness with caution and sometimes anxiety. And then there is the large percentage of people in the middle- those people who focus on new things selectively, choosing those things that will help them learn or accomplish new things.

The Science behind Novelty

It was interesting to read about the science novelty. We each react to newness in different ways and with varying degrees of intensity. The neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps regulate motivation, anticipation, and learning among other things, plays a major role in our unique chemical reaction toward novelty.

When we anticipate and pursue new and rewarding things, our brains trigger releases of dopamine. Some people need stronger and, sometimes, more dangerous variations of newness in their lives, to provide the level of dopamine that someone with a more normal affinity for dopamine would need.

The Negative and Positives of New Technology

The book also focused on the change in the rate of novelty since the beginning of the information era in the 1960s. We’re now receiving four times the information every day than our grandparents experienced, yet we’re still wired with the same brain.

It explore the benefits of new technology – enabling us to learn just about anything we want to whenever we want to learn it, allowing anyone, not just professionals and experts, to contribute to our cultural experience, and blurring the lines between the workplace and home, making places like schools more obsolete.

But it also touches on the negative aspects of our obsession with novelty and technology – by staring at screens most of the day, we’re missing out on what’s going on around us and by constantly trying to keep up with more and more information, we don’t allow our brains the rest periods to learn, remember and integrate our thoughts and feelings.

I wanted to leave you with three quotes from the book and my thoughts about how they relate to interest-led learning.

1. “When you don’t feel in charge, you’re vulnerable to the senses of hopelessness and helplessness that over time can spiral downward into depression.  New things that create uncertainty about how to respond frustrate your desire for control by preventing the brain from doing its most important job: figuring out what you should do next.”

This made me finally understand why I’m often attracted to learning new things (I’m getting a nice surge of dopamine), yet when I’m in the middle of learning, my previous categories I’ve constructed of the world are being questioned. I now have to take this new information and fit it into existing categories or even form entirely new categories.

All that hurts sometimes. It’s not easy changing the way you view the world. But you can’t truly learn something new without it bringing a little discomfort. It’s often uncomfortable to change, but you can’t grow without it.

2. “It’s already hard to believe that it wasn’t so long ago in human history that most people, much less small children, weren’t expected to spend their days sitting still and concentrating on mental tasks for hours on end….Many young novelty seekers in our urbanized environments lack the legitimate outlets for their high spirits long provided by our species’ ancient, traditional pursuits of exploration and hunting.”

We are not biologically built to sit still for long. Most of our ancestors came up with their inventions and creative solutions while on the move, not while sitting at a desk or doing drills and workbooks. I’m learning that a lot of my physical health problems, and even my mental state, are really affected by how much of the day I spend in one spot.

3. “Electronic media are ideal for some kinds of work, but their speed, interactivity, and high degree of stimulation are not well suited to the slow processes of deep thought.  They supply information, not knowledge or meaning. Facts alone are not enough to establish real understanding, which requires context and reflection.”

Context and reflection is what is lacking in a school environment. Kids don’t have to opportunity to experience things first-hand in real situations. Also, when there is a set schedule determined by someone other than the learner, and that schedule goes from one unrelated subject to the next, packing in as many subjects into one day as it can, then there is no room for reflection.

Without true, personal reflection (not the kind that supposed to come from assigned writing topics or other top-down projects), all those bits and pieces of new information will  not amount to any true understanding or knowledge in the end.

  •  I’ve decided to do a monthly review of a book that relates to the idea of interest-led learning. If you have any suggestions of books that I should review, please let me know in the comment section below or send me an e-mail to Thanks!

Photo Credit: cliff1066   (There are no affiliate links in the post)

How strongly do you seek out new things? How can novelty seeking both help and harm our kids?

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