The Science Behind Our Need for Variety in Activities

Some people's brains respond more positively to getting off the beaten track.

Posted May 31, 2020

 Mopic/Shutterstock
Source: Mopic/Shutterstock

Being cooped up during a quarantine makes everyone a little stir crazy and can lead to cabin fever. Does the daily grind of COVID stay-at-home orders make you feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day? Do you feel like you're living out a Twilight Zone episode in which every humdrum day on your calendar is an exact carbon copy of the dull, ho-hum day before? Do you ache for some adventure to spice up your boring "rat in a maze" lockdown routine and make you happier?

Recently published brain imaging research (conducted before the pandemic) suggests that the monotony created by a homogeneous daily routine that lacks new and diverse experiences may be harder for people who have more robust functional connectivity between their hippocampus and striatum. This peer-reviewed paper (Heller et al., 2020) was published on May 18 in the journal Nature Neuroscience

The research question for this pre-coronavirus study: Is diversity in humans' daily experiences associated with more positive emotional states?

To answer this question, first author Aaron Heller and colleagues used GPS trackers to follow the daily movements of study participants in New York and Miami for a few months. The researches asked subjects to send text messages reporting on their positive or negative emotional states as they went about their day and moved from place to place or stayed in the same location.

At another phase of the study, participants had MRI scans to document functional connectivity between different brain regions. 

Study participants with more robust hippocampal-striatal functional connectivity tended to report having a stronger emotional response to getting off the beaten track. On days when people with this brain signature experienced more variety in their physical surroundings and were able to spend time in different geographical locations, they were more likely to report feeling "happy," "excited," "strong," and "relaxed" or "attentive."

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first human MRI-based study to identify an association between real-world experiential diversity and positive emotional states linked to hippocampal-striatal functional connectivity. In the paper's abstract, the authors sum up their findings:

"Experiential diversity promotes well-being in animal models. Here, using geolocation tracking, experience sampling, and neuroimaging, we found that daily variability in physical location was associated with increased positive affect in humans. This effect was stronger for individuals who exhibited greater functional coupling of the hippocampus and striatum."

Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock
Source: Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

"Our results suggest that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines—when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences," senior author Catherine Hartley, assistant professor in New York University's Department of Psychology, said in a news release. She added, "The opposite is also likely true: Positive feelings may drive people to seek out these rewarding experiences more frequently."

"These results suggest a reciprocal link between the novel and diverse experiences we have during our daily exploration of our physical environments and our subjective sense of well-being," Hartley noted.

"Collectively, these findings show the beneficial consequences of environmental enrichment across species, demonstrating a connection between real-world exposure to fresh and varied experiences and increases in positive emotions," first author Aaron Heller, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami, concluded. 

Regardless of how much happiness or dysphoria someone feels being under lockdown in the short-term, public health experts agree that stay-at-home guidelines and social distancing are in everyone's long-term interest. The researchers who conducted this study recognize that, by their very nature, shelter-in-place orders are designed to limit people's geographical movements and subsequently restrict everyone's ability to experience new and diverse environments freely.

In closing, Hartley and Heller offer some practical advice for those of us who are still sheltering in place and only leave home for essentials: "Even small changes that introduce greater variability into the physical or mental routine—such as exercising at home, going on a walk around the block, and taking a different route to the grocery store or pharmacy—may potentially yield beneficial effects."

References

Aaron S. Heller, Tracey C. Shi, C. E. Chiemeka Ezie, Travis R. Reneau, Lara M. Baez, Conor J. Gibbons & Catherine A. Hartley. "Association Between Real-World Experiential Diversity and Positive Affect Relates to Hippocampal–Striatal Functional Connectivity." Nature Neuroscience (First published: May 18, 2020) DOI: 10.1038/s41593-020-0636-4