Why are we attuned to the latest headline, diet craze, smartphone, fashion statement? Why do we relish a change of scene, eye attractive strangers, develop new interests?
How did Homo sapiens survive near-extinction during an environmental crisis 80,000 years ago, while close cousins very like us have died out?
Why is your characteristic reaction to novelty and change the key to your whole personality?
Why do we enjoy inexpensive pleasures, like fresh flowers or great chocolate, more than costly comforts, like cars or appliances?
How can a species genetically geared to engage with novelty cope in a world that increasingly bombards us with it?
Follow a crawling baby around and you’ll see that right from the beginning, nothing excites us more than something new and different. Our unique human brains are biologically primed to engage with and even generate novelty, from our ancestors’ first bow and arrow to the latest tablet computer. This “neophilia” has enabled us to thrive in a world of cataclysmic change, but now, we confront an unprecedented deluge of new things, from products to information, which has quadrupled in the past 30 years and shows no sign of slowing. To prevent our great strength from becoming a weakness in today’s fast-paced world, we must re-connect with neophilia’s grand evolutionary purpose: to help us learn, create, and adapt to new things that have real value and dismiss the rest as distractions.
In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Winifred Gallagher, acclaimed behavioral science writer and author of Rapt, takes us to the cutting-edge laboratories and ancient archeological sites where scientists explore our special affinity for novelty and change. Although no other species can rival our capacity to explore and experiment with the new, we individuals vary in how we balance the conflicting needs to avoid risk and approach rewards. Most of us are moderate “neophiles,” but some 15 per cent of us are die-hard “neophiliacs,” who have an innate passion for new experiences, and another 15 per cent are cautious “neophobes,” who try to steer clear of them—a 1-5-1 ratio that benefits the group’s well-being. Wherever you sit on the continuum, New shows you how to use this special human gift to navigate more skillfully through our rapidly changing world by focusing on the new things that really matter.
Anxiety over newness is at least as hoary as Future Shock, and there's not much new to say about it, to judge by this scattered social think-piece. Journalist Gallagher (Just the Way You Are) takes a lightly scientific approach. She plumbs the evolutionary advantages of trying new things, warns that the dopamine jolts the brain emits to welcome stimulating novelties make us prey to video games and drug dealers, and classifies everyone according to their genetic and cultural predispositions to approach or avoid unfamiliar phenomena. (She is fascinated with the life stories of "neophiliacs," such as astronauts, while disdaining "neophobes" though they have their virtues as evolutionary dead ends fit to be accountants.) She cannily occupies the sweet spot between celebrating today's telecom marvels, reality shows, and social networking sites as an unprecedented eruption of creative newness and fretting that the flood of novel entertainments and "junk information" will make us distracted, shallow, and isolated. Gallagher is a fluent writer, and many of her riffs, like a brief history of boredom, sparkle. Still, novelty seeking makes a tenuous principle for analyzing personal and social psychology is newness more significant now than in the age of Edison and the Wright brothers? and one that feels old hat.