Written and illustrated by Revathi Nair
Have you ever wondered why you are inexplicably drawn to new things? It may be a new pair of shoes, a new gaming console, a new iPhone. We have all known the fascination over new things- both at an individual and a societal level- and our desire to own them. Have you ever wondered why seeing new things sometimes turns your brain into Gollum going, “My precious!” Well, here’s the straightforward answer- we humans are obsessed with the very novelty of things.
And whom do we blame?
As always- our brain.
While there are several other factors that influence our attraction to novelty, such as its status symbolism, or its more effective features, a major factor is our own neurobiology. Our brains are designed- or more appropriately, have evolved- to be drawn to new objects, people and experiences.
THE BIOLOGY BEHIND THE OBSESSION
Our brains are always on the lookout for the new and unknown. In fact, research shows us that humans are more readily drawn to unfamiliar stimuli than to familiar ones. Perhaps this attraction to novelty is a remnant passed down from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Had they not been drawn to new things- new lands, new foods, new tools- humans may not have been as exploratory as we know them to be, and we wouldn’t be who we are today.
When we look at human behaviour at its very basic, elemental level, we can nearly always uncover the stimulus-response relationship determining it. In this case, the relationship is driven by the neurotransmitter, dopamine, also commonly known as the ‘happy hormone’. Let me explain it simply through a series of doodles.
Mr. Sticky loves crystal balls. Maybe he is a crystal ball enthusiast. One day, he passes by a crystal ball shop and he finds a brand new, gorgeous crystal at the window display.
When Mr Sticky sees the crystal ball, his brain goes berserk. There is a rush of dopamine, and this rush motivates him to learn more about this brand new thing by purchasing it.
Hence, he buys it and takes it home. Being the enthusiast that he is, Mr. Sticky has a room full of crystal balls. Yet, for a long time, he loves the new one the most.
Eventually, when Mr. Sticky looks at his crystal ball, he no longer gets the happy feeling it used to give him. His brain no longer produces dopamine at the sight of the crystal. This is because the ball has now lost its novelty.
The crystal simply becomes another part of his large collection. One fine day, while walking home, Mr. Sticky passes by the crystal ball shop again. He freezes when he sees a gorgeous new crystal at the display! A new and improved one!
The sight of the new and improved crystal ball with even more features leads to a dopamine rush in his brain. This in turn motivates him to buy the crystal ball and explore all its brand-new features.
Yet again, dear Mr. Sticky adores his new crystal ball for weeks before losing interest in it. As you may have guessed, Mr. Sticky’s brain has stopped producing dopamine at the sight of his new crystal now that he is familiar to it.
In this way, Mr. Sticky represents all humans who have found themselves drawn to a brand new object. They buy it, only to grow tired of it, and go on to seek the same dopamine rush that they first experienced elsewhere. With time humans knowingly or unknowingly become a part of this cycle.
To put it simply, when we see a new object, our brain experiences a dopamine rush. This release of dopamine motivates us to ‘seek rewards’ from the new object. Once you get used to the object, once it becomes familiar to you and there’s nothing new to experience from it, the release of dopamine comes to a halt. The object has lost its novelty- your brain no longer derives pleasure from the it.
THE CONSEQUENCE OF THIS OBSESSION
This unquenching thirst for novelty that humans have is often exploited by large corporations. Think of companies selling newer models of cell phones every year. Often, the newer model is based on the original prototype with some obvious changes in, perhaps, the screen size, the number of cameras, etc. Despite this, a large number of people desire to own it.
Once they grow used to it, they seek out a newer version. However, realistically, most people do not give in to that desire since cell phones tend to be quite expensive. A majority of us treat them as investments. There is another industry, however, where this novelty-driven purchasing behaviour is more evident.
NOVELTY AND THE FASHION INDUSTRY
Fashion is ever-evolving. A new trend takes over an older one within days. Every time a new prominent and generally acceptable fashion trend appears, consumers wish to jump onto the bandwagon. Overtly this might seem normal and alright. It’s okay to shuffle up our wardrobes once in a while, right? However, this kind of consumer behaviour has long term consequences on our planet.
Our fascination with novelty lies at the very foundation of fashion industries, specifically fast fashion. We buy new clothes, wear them and consequently dispose of them. The life span of the clothes we wear has greatly decreased.
This leads to a constant need for raw material, labor, a higher frequency of transport, etc. so that brands can produce more clothing to meet the increasing demand. With fast fashion, the problem is worse than we imagine.
For the consumer, this is a win-win situation. However, for our planet, there couldn’t be a worse scenario.
Fast fashion brands produce garments from materials that are not highly durable. These clothes are destined to be disposed of even before they are adequately worn. Not only do they use cheaper materials, but exploit their labour force, and greatly contribute to the rising pollution. A majority of countries, including India do not have the facilities and mechanisms in place to recycle the growing number of disposed clothing. The systems that are in place are not equipped to meet the growing rate of this ‘fashion waste’.
In the process of being driven by our brain’s desire for all things new, we forget that there’s one thing that we cannot have anew. Our suffering planet.
The author acknowledges that in several circumstances, humans prefer the old and familiar over the new and strange. The love for newness is generally prevalent for items that are considered to be improvements of the previous one that the individual may have preferred. On the other hand, absolute novelty may not always be well received by humans. The aim of this piece, however, is to only focus on human attraction to novelty, and its ecological consequence.
Revathi Nair is a psychology graduate and student writer with interests in neuropsychology and cognition.