Learning Something New? Research Says Trying This Might Help

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She has bachelor's degrees in journalism and english literature from Boston University.
Woman Tutoring Another Woman in School

Image by Guille Faingold / Stocksy

Learning, whether it's for school when we're young or when acquiring a new skill later is life, is a lifelong process. And as such, new tactics to help boost our ability to learn are always welcome. A group of researchers in Belgium has provided just that in a new study that links novelty to dopamine production and its power to improve our brain's learning ability.

How does dopamine help learning?

The power of novelty to improve learning has been investigated before, with previous studies drawing a link between them but not contributing to the understanding of why or how it works. This study aimed specifically to isolate how dopamine fits into the puzzle.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is linked to love, pleasure, motivation and, of course, rewards. Malfunctioning dopamine transmissions can be related to conditions such as Parkinson's, schizophrenia, and addiction.

The idea is based on one of the fundamental types of learning, known as associative learning. While it may sound fancy, it's as simple as using rewards as positive reinforcement and negative consequences as negative reinforcement.

Researchers thought dopamine might be the missing link between novelty and associative learning.

"Previous work suggested that novelty might activate the dopamine system in the brain. Therefore, we thought that dopamine activation might also promote associative learning," said Sebastian Haesler, Ph.D., who led the study.

In order to find out if novelty activates dopamine neurons, researchers exposed mice to both novel and familiar scents: "When mice smell a novel stimulus, they get very excited and start sniffing very rapidly. This natural, spontaneous behavior provides a great readout for novelty perception," said Cagatay Aydin, Ph.D., another researcher who worked on the project.

In order to ensure that it was the dopamine that sped up the learning process instead of something else, researchers also blocked dopamine activation in some tests and found that, as expected, learning was slowed. They also did the reverse, by stimulating dopamine production when novelty was absent.

"Stimulating dopamine neurons during the presentation of familiar stimuli accelerated learning," said Joachim Morrens, Ph.D., another study author.

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So, how can we stimulate dopamine to boost learning?

Now that we know that dopamine helps us learn faster, how can we stimulate it to take advantage of this boost?

Well, since dopamine is related to rewards, establishing a way to reward ourselves for a study session or a class can lead to the release of this happy brain chemical. Music has also been linked to dopamine production, so listening to music that feels good may boost learning, too.

Dopamine can also be triggered by volunteering or working to help others, so it's possible that bringing friends along on our learning journey could help, even if it's just by telling them all about it after.

But what the researchers on this project recommend is a simple effort to shift our mindset to embrace novelty in our learning experiences, whether that's by seeking out new things, breaking with our usual routine, or simply finding the excitement in the monotonous.

If you've been looking to learn a new skill, or trying to improve your memory, you should consider introducing novelty to your learning. But decreasing stress is also an important step toward boosting our brains, and there's plenty of strategies that can help you do that.

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