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Our Brains Reward Us For Travel and New Experiences, New Study Shows

The findings show how our brain anatomy plays a part in forming adventurous spirits.

As lockdowns are gradually eased worldwide in the wake of the first wave of COVID-19, we have time to reflect on the way being stuck indoors for large periods of time has affected us. 

Though it's hardly surprising to think that the majority of people will be looking forward to ending their confinement and going outside more often, a new study has shed light on just why we crave the sensory stimulus of exploring new places and having new experiences.

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The study from the University of Miami and New York University shows that humans, just like lab rats, seem to be happier when they experience novel environments rather than being in the same location for prolonged periods.

Published in Nature Neuroscience, the study, titled 'Association between real-world experiential diversity and positive effect relates to hippocampal–striatal functional connectivity', details the way that researchers tracked the movements of more than 100 participants over the course of three months. 

During that time, the participants also completed mood questionnaires every other day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the participants reported that on days they visited places they had never been to before they felt an increase in positive moods.

That's not all. The researchers also took MRI scans of the participants' brains. Those who felt greater improvements in their mood when they traveled and had new experiences also had greater functional connectivity between two brain regions: the striatum and the hippocampus.

Both of these areas are both associated with novelty detection and reward processing through the release of dopamine.

Before anyone gets too excited and starts claiming this is proof that we're hardwired to be outside and that lockdowns are inhumane, another study recently linked non-compliance with social distancing guidelines to psychopathic traits — so there's that. 

The findings do, however, suggest that a strong connection between these two aforementioned areas of the brain likely signal a propensity for adventure. Maybe ancient seafarers were blessed with very well connected hippocampi and stratia.

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