Previous scientific studies have suggested that being in new places or situations can boost memory in young adults! We wanted to find out if this effect is also present in younger children and older adults. Our results showed that children, adolescents, and young adults who spent time exploring a new environment could remember more information than people who spent time exploring a familiar environment. This means that in younger people, but not older people, memory was boosted after exploring a new place. We also discovered that these memory benefits apply to learning movement skills. In the future, we hope to understand the brain’s role in these memory benefits.
Can New Places Help You Remember Better?
We use the ability to remember every day. Memory allows us to recognize friends and family, do well on tests, tie our shoelaces, and so much more! Sometimes we forget things, and that is normal too. Do you remember what you had for dinner when you were on holiday in a country you had not visited before? And do you remember what you had for dinner the day after you returned home from that holiday? You might notice that you remember your holiday dinner much better than the dinner you had at home. This may be because, throughout human history, it has been important to pay attention to things that are new or different. The same applies to exploring unfamiliar situations. To survive, our ancestors had to quickly learn whether and to what extent new environments were dangerous or rewarding, so that similar situations could be explored safely, and rewards such as food and shelter could be found in the future . Were there dangerous animals threatening to eat them alive, or perhaps tasty fruits that kept their hunger at bay? This tells us why we might remember better after being in unfamiliar situations… but how does unfamiliarity, also known as novelty, actually boost memory?
How Do You Learn and Remember?
Imagine your brain as a forest. Any two parts of the forest could become connected by a path if the same route is taken often enough. The more often a traveler chooses the same path, the more visible the path becomes. In the study of brains, this is called long-term potentiation. Like a forest has paths between separate regions, the brain has connections between cells called neurons, which are the brain’s “communicators”. Neurons use electrical and chemical signals to communicate with each other, transmitting important information throughout the brain. The more often a connection is activated, the stronger that connection becomes—just like paths in a forest. In the brain, these connections might represent things like memories or learned information. When these connections are activated, we can recall that information.
Previous studies suggest that being immersed in or witnessing anything novel activates brain areas important in the production of dopamine. Dopamine is one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to talk to one another. The main task of dopamine is to anticipate the value of things in our environment. For example, dopamine helps us to evaluate how rewarding certain objects, people, or experiences are, and helps us better remember the things that are important or rewarding. You could picture dopamine as a ranger deciding which paths in the forest (memories) are especially important and then making these paths more walkable (easier to remember). The brain areas responsible for producing dopamine mature throughout childhood and adolescence, leading to more dopamine rangers working in our brain during that time in our lives. In contrast, as we become older, these areas begin to retire and—just like humans do—lose some of their productivity, resulting in less dopamine in the brain .
People can store several types of memories. We can store information from the past, such as lists of words or the names of the world’s capital cities. The ability to consciously remember such information is called declarative memory. There are two types of declarative memory: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic memory is the memory of facts, which you use to know the correct answers during a test at school. Episodic memory is the memory of things that have happened in your life, such as the holiday dinner we mentioned earlier. A brain area called the hippocampus is especially important in creating and storing declarative memories. It is also a popular “travel destination” for dopamine. The hippocampus receives information from all over the brain and bundles up that information to be stored long term, as a memory.
In addition to declarative memory, we also store information that we can use to perform actions but that we are relatively unconscious of, such as how to ride a bike or throw a ball. The type of memory that is responsible for knowing how to do such things is called procedural memory. Procedural memory can help you do well in your sports and playground games, and it is dependent on other brain regions, such as the basal ganglia and the cerebellum (Figure 1). While the positive effects of novelty have been repeatedly shown for information stored in declarative memory , it is unclear if these effects are also true for procedural memory.
What Did We Investigate?
So, we knew that a novel environment could boost memory through dopamine, which strengthens the connections between neurons in the brain. We also knew that the brain areas responsible for producing dopamine first become stronger and then weaker as we age. This means that the positive effects of novelty on memory may vary in individuals of different ages. We wanted to investigate whether the novelty-related boost in memory affects people of all ages, and whether it is true for procedural memory in addition to declarative memory.
To explore these questions, we asked a total of 439 individuals visiting a science museum to participate in our experiment. They were divided into four groups based on their ages: children (8–11 years), adolescents (12–17 years), younger adults (18–44 years), and older adults (45 years and older). During the experiment, each participant explored two virtual environments (Figure 2). For some participants both environments were identical, meaning that the second environment they explored was already familiar to them. For the remaining participants, the environments were different, meaning that the second environment they explored was novel. After exploring the environments, all participants were presented with a list of words, and we later tested their memory of these words. In addition, all participants completed a task in which they learned to perform a series of movements. In this task, they had to move a joystick to hit a target presented on the computer screen.
What Did We Find?
We found that age affected whether novelty boosted memory! Adolescents and young adults remembered more words overall compared to children and older adults. More interestingly, we also found that children, adolescents, and young adults remembered more words after exploring a novel environment as compared to a familiar environment. In contrast, older adults remembered fewer words after exploring a novel environment as opposed to a familiar environment. Do you remember how dopamine levels in the brain rise and fall as we go through life? The beneficial effect of novelty that we observed in our study—with benefits for younger but not older people—follows the same pattern (Figure 3). We also found that people who explored more in the virtual environments remembered more words. Perhaps people who are more open to exploration have better memory? Or maybe exploration improves memory? We cannot answer those questions with the current study’s results, but these would be fascinating topics for future research.
Finally, we found that the beneficial effects of novelty also extend to the memory of movements. Specifically, we found that participants remembered the learned joystick movements better after exploring a novel environment as compared to a familiar environment . This suggests that the memory of learned movement skills becomes more durable after people explore novel environments.
Should You Stay Home Or Explore New Places?
To conclude, in our experiment we found that exploring a novel environment led to a boost in declarative as well as procedural memory in children, adolescents, and younger adults, but not in older adults. This means that exploring may especially help younger people to improve their memory. This includes you, so go out and explore (safely, and after getting permission from an adult)! Our findings are important because they suggest that by exposing younger people who have memory problems to novelty, we may be able to help them improve their memory. Future research could help us to identify which memory problems specifically benefit from novel situations. Maybe someday, doctors will give people with memory issues a “prescription” to explore new places!
Novelty: ↑ An event or experience that is new or unfamiliar.
Long-Term Potentiation: ↑ The strengthening of a connection between neurons as a result of the connection being activated time after time.
Neurons: ↑ The brain’s “communicators”, which use electrical and chemical signals to communicate with each other, transmitting important information throughout the brain.
Dopamine: ↑ One of the chemical messengers that neurons use to transmit information. The main task of dopamine is to evaluate the value of things in our environment.
Declarative Memory: ↑ The conscious memory of information, such as lists of words or the names of the world’s capital cities.
Semantic Memory: ↑ A sub-category of declarative memory, namely the memory of facts and concepts.
Episodic Memory: ↑ A sub-category of declarative memory, namely the memory of personal experiences.
Procedural Memory: ↑ Memory of information that we can use to perform actions, such as how to ride a bike or throw a ball.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
NWO Open Competition, number 406.XS.01.144, as awarded to JS.
Original Source Article
↑Schomaker, J., Baumann, V., and Ruitenberg, M. F. L. (2022). Effects of exploring a novel environment on memory across the lifespan. Sci. Rep. 12:1663. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-20562-4
 ↑ Panksepp, J. 2004. Affective Neuroscience (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Incorporated). p. 466.
 ↑ Düzel, E., Bunzeck, N., Guitart-Masip, M., and Düzel, S. 2010. NOvelty-related motivation of anticipation and exploration by dopamine (NOMAD): implications for healthy aging. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 34:660–9. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.08.006
 ↑ Schomaker, J. 2019. Unexplored territory: beneficial effects of novelty on memory. Neurobiol. Learn. Mem. 161:46–50. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2019.03.005
 ↑ Ruitenberg, M. F. L., Koppelmans, V., Seidler, R. D., and Schomaker, J. 2022. Novelty exposure induces stronger sensorimotor representations during a manual adaptation task. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1510:68–78. doi: 10.1111/nyas.14731