How the Brain Handles Novelty and Routine

When faced with complexity, our first response is to retreat to the familiar, even if the familiar means failing. But in addition to reverting to what is familiar, we also have another reaction: fear.

We are hardwired to perceive real change as threatening, so we instinctively reject it. Sure, a few of us have the courage and tenacity to attack the complex, the unknown, and the risky. After all, this is hiow new discoveries are made.

But many more of us do not.

Why not?

It turns out there may be a simple evolutionary explanation for our reaction: When we choose what is familiar, we reduce danger. :. In nature, animals that gravitate toward what is already known and understood frequently improve their survival opportunities by lowering risk.

Conversely, when we are willing to tackle the unknown, we assume much greater risk. Though progress requires a few humans to confront danger on behalf of their group, the increased risk associated with embracing novelty is more often avoided. Therefore, through the process of Natural Selection we have evolved strong cognitive safeguards to protect us against the unfamiliar and potentially harmful.

Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles, has been studying the human brain's respouse to foreign and complex ideas for many years. During his research Schwartz uncovered a simple biological reason for opposition: a two-tiered system the brain uses to manage familiar and unfamiliar tasks.

The easiest way to understand Dr. Schwartz's research is to think of the human brain like a large factory.

Inside every factory there are routine tasks that, once mastered, demand little thought. These functions are so well defined that they are largely performed by laborers whose performance can be easily measured using simple benchmarks such as quantity and consistency.

Similarly, in the human brain familiar tasks that require almost no conscious thought are managed with great efficiency by the basal gang/icz, the "habit center of the brain." Routine tasks such as taking a shower, buttering our toast in the morning, driving the same car on the same route to work every day—any actions that have been learned, mastered, and relegated to habit—get "shoved down" to the basal ganglia in the brain.

But, every factory also requires executives, such as the chief executive officer, to perform tasks that are less routine —responsibilities comprised of negotiating, managing crises, strategic planning, and other nonconforming functions.

The CEO's job is equivalent to the complex tasks performed by the frontal cortex—the same area of the human brain that began growing at evolutionary light speed when humans became bipedal and brmed sophisticated social groups. This is the part of the brain that processes new information and solves difficult problems, and like the CEO, it extracts a hefty price for its abilities.

Schwartz points out that the job of the basal ganglia is to "free up the processing resources of the frontal cortex." So once tasks become habitual, the brain offloads these tasks. That leaves more horsepower for unfamiliar and complex tasks to be performed in the frontal cortex—the brain's CEO.

To illustrate how the two-tiered system works in the real world, Schwartz cites driving a car as an example. Learning to drive a vehicle requires many complex cognitive processes that quickly consume all our immediate short-term memory and demand the full attention of the frontal cortex. This is the reason, after our first driving lesson, we feel completely exhausted even though we have not been exerting any physical energy other than steering and tapping the brakes.

But once we master driving, it's another story. We drive without consciously thinking about what we're doing. Often we drive familiar routes without remembering anything about the trip despite miraculously avoiding pedestrians, other cars, running red lights, and making wrong turns. How? When driving becomes so familiar as to r require no conscious thought, it can be relegated to the basal ganglia, where tasks are executed on autopilot.

But what happens when the rate of change accelerates and the environment we must navigate becomes increasingly unfamiliar and complex?

For a moment imagine driving a different route to work every where every landmark is unfamiliar. Better yet, imagine being g asked to drive an altogether different kind of vehicle and having to makdke several unfamiliar stops along the way while still being expected to arrive on time. In order to process this much new information, we h have to fully engage the frontal cortex. Without any familiarity, it is impossible to delegate even the smallest task to the basal ganglia. In this way, accelerating complexity leads to overloading the frontal cortex—the equivalent of asking a CEO to solve a corporate crisis every second of every day.

Is it any wonder we reflexively oppose everything as fast as we can? Opposition reduces our workload and risk.


The frontal cortex is wired to handle novelty and the basal ganglia wired to handle routine, when we live in a world of constant novelty, is our gut reaction to oppose everything?

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 The Watchman's Rattle
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Costa , Rebecca (2010-10-12), The Watchman's Rattle, Vanguard, Retrieved on 2013-04-13
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  • Folksonomies: education