The Benefits of Novel Experience
It Can Be Good to Get Out of Your Head
by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.
Our website content is no stranger to controversy. A few months back a blog on the benefits of drugs may have been our single best pot-stirrer to-date based on the number of fervent responses of discontent. Never mind that we live in a society that uses more drugs than any other. Never mind that our culture often espouses the credo ‘better living through chemistry.’ Never mind that research shows that non-ordinary states of consciousness often have lasting positive impact on overall functioning and wellbeing. Never mind that the idea of a drug free society is delusional. Never mind that our controversy-laden blog entitled ‘Drugs are Good?’ would have likely generated absolutely no outrage had it used the euphemistic synonym for drugs and been called ‘Medicines Are Good.’ Bottom line, there are benefits and risks to drug use. This article will explore some of the evidence to support the benefits of novel experience, which shows that it can be good to get out of our heads, whether through drug use or other means.
Non-ordinary states of consciousness, whether attained through ingestion of chemical compounds, meditation, sleep, novel experience, prayer, yoga, sensory deprivation, bio/neurofeedback, mindfulness, etc., help us view problems in a different light and can lead to lasting, positive changes. Often, over-reliance on the so-called ‘left-brain,’ intellectual, rational mind at the expense of our emotional experience is a major contributor to mental and physical health issues. Relying on intellect and rational thinking to solve the problems created by the intellect and rational thinking is akin to attempting to get out of debt by borrowing money. As Einstein reminded us, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Non-ordinary states of consciousness, by definition, jolt us out of the default-mode network of the brain. The default-mode network is exactly what it sounds like, the habitual brain actions and interactions involved in our day-to-day activities that form the neurological basis for our sense of self. Our brains get used to routines, neurons that fire together wire together, and the most common pathways of neurological activation become our most well-established patterns of brain activity. To get our brains out of the default-mode we must mix-up our routines. Novel experiences help us get out of our head and think about ourselves, our problems, and our lives differently.
When activity in our brain’s default-mode network is reduced our brains make new connections as different parts of the brain interact. Reductions in our default-mode network have a starring role in thinking outside the box, fostering creativity, and enhancing wellbeing. Recent research into psychedelics like psilocybin shows that such compounds reliably reduce activity in the default-mode network and allow for novel brain connectivity.
The non-ordinary states of consciousness reliably induced by psychedelics look strikingly similar to the non-ordinary states of consciousness achieved by experience meditators, and research supports the lasting benefits of meditative practices like mindfulness on mental and physical wellbeing. Research also suggests that a lack of novel activity can result in brain atrophy and potentially facilitate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Whatever our habits are, breaking them, changing them, or just taking a break from them are often some of the best things we can do for our mental and physical health. The benefits of novel experience are clear, and habitual is the antithesis to novel.
We live in a society enamored with our own folksy, habitual groupthink about addiction that bears little connection to any scientific research or theory. American groupthink posits that drugs are bad and people who use them are powerless. To simply share that scientific research shows some benefits to novel experiences, including those induced by some drugs, will likely continue to be seen as irresponsible blasphemy, but, such is the cost of advocating for reason and truth in a culture enveloped in a suffocating web of its own confirmation bias.