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No holiday plans? Go on a virtual trip this summer!

‘Walking around in a new environment activates our brain’s learning centre. This allows us to learn better, even once we’ve returned to a familiar environment.’ This is the conclusion drawn by neuroscientist Judith Schomaker in her recent publication in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

What is new about her discovery is that this positive effect on memory only occurs when test subjects are allowed to explore a new environment themselves, not when they watch a video of another test subject doing the exploring. Judith Schomaker: ‘During this lockdown students are missing opportunities to discover new environments. In our recently published study, we found that passive exposure to a new environment is not enough. To have a new experience, it’s better to play a 3D computer game than to passively watch a nature documentary.’ 

Learning in a new environment

We know from animal studies that all sorts of things happen in the brain when we visit a new place. These brain processes lower the threshold value for learning. This is our brain’s way of making sure that we can learn more easily in a new environment. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s important to learn quickly in a new environment full of danger and potential rewards. This mechanism is still at work today, for example when visiting a new city. What are the dangerous neighbourhoods or the tricky junctions? Where can you find a restaurant or supermarket? How do you get back to your hotel? Learning is particularly important in a new environment, and our brain primes us for it. 

Virtual new worlds

And yet there is little research on the effects of novelty on learning in humans, because humans are harder to study than for example rats that you can simply move into a new cage. Virtual Reality (VR) now makes it easier to bring people into a truly new environment. In Schomaker’s experiments, test subjects first explored a virtual environment to get to know it. On the second and third day the test subjects came back to the lab and explored the same, by now familiar, environment or a new one. Test subjects who had a chance to actively explore the new environment were able to learn more words. Test subjects who had only passively watched a video of another test subject exploring the new environment showed no improvement in memory. Schomaker: ‘These effects can be explained through interplay between the learning system – the hippocampus – and the brain’s reward system.’ 

Schomaker’s previous study showed that people learn better in a new environment. This increased learning capacity even persisted for tens of minutes after the test subjects left the new environment.
Why your brain needs to explore new places

Positive effect on memory

‘We gained these insights from animal studies, since there is as yet no research into the underlying mechanisms in humans. The animal models do seem to point to the positive effect of curiosity on memory. For example, a recent article in Nature described animals displaying a dopamine response in a new environment. The dopamine comes from the brain stem into the learning system in the hippocampus, where it literally lowers the threshold value for learning, so animals can more easily pick up information. Now we’ve found a similar positive effect on memory in humans. But we didn’t yet look at exactly how this process works, which is something I hope to investigate in future.’ 

Something new or something familiar?

Novelty doesn’t just affect our ability to learn. ‘Think of how you respond when visiting a place for the first time. You pay more attention to what goes on around you and you want to explore what there is to see and do. Now that we’re all spending much more time at home in lockdown, this is a very topical theme. People miss going on adventures or planning a holiday. This helps us better understand the importance of a new environment.’ In another study, Schomaker studied the effect of the lockdown on explorative behaviour. Her preliminary results show that people who were more home-bound with a smaller radius of action made less explorative choices. They were more likely to choose for options with a certain outcome. ‘This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in order to survive we have to explore and discover. If you always do the same thing in the same way, you miss opportunities to do it better or use the available resources more effectively.’

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