DANIELLE POPE: The battle of trying ‘new’

Studies tell us trying new things is good for the brain...

Studies tell us trying new things is good for the brain.

A few years ago, European researchers Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel performed what they called an “oddball” experiment to find out how our brains responded to novelty. They showed a variety of subjects general images of indoor and outdoor scenes as well as faces, with a few unexpected novel images (oddballs) thrown in. Using radio signals and magnetic fields to measure blood flow to the brain regions, the two discovered something fantastic: a distinct emotional arousal according to how novel the image was.

After seeing this pattern repeated throughout their willing test subject, the two scientists concluded in their finding that particular parts of our brains are more activated by greater novelty, and that this finding even supported models of brain function that see novelty as a motivating factor in searching our environment for a “reward,” rather than the reward itself being what we are seeking.

Translation: even when we don’t know it, our brains like weird, new things.

Interesting, then, that experimental quests into the human condition are so fraught with resistance. Only weeks ago, a number of Victoria and Vancouver researchers published their report on the drastic outcome of what Canada terms an “experimental” and exploratory drug study — using psychedelic medications as a way out of addiction, substance abuse, even, in some cases, mental illness. (See the story here.) But while this new form of “risky” healing might give a shudder to many Westerners, aboriginal cultures in South and North America have been using these methods — namely, the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca — for hundreds of years to treat what ails their friends and families.

As I asked people about their views on experimental drug treatments for this week’s StreetSmarts, it struck me the number of residents who outright said ‘bad’ and ‘no way’ before even hearing the end of the question. For those who stayed to chat a moment, there was this look of wonder, even shared fascination as we talked about the researchers’ projects. By the end, those willing to have their photos next to anything with “drug” in the sentence had come to the conclusion that both sides were valid — maybe even useful.

Unfortunately, the government of Canada doesn’t agree. When Health Canada heard about the ayahuasca retreats back in 2011, it ordered a stop to them, even when all participants showed notable quality-of-life improvements and the ability to walk away from their addictions when all the conventional recovery programs couldn’t help them. This treatment, which shamans and participants say strikes straight at the source of the problem, was just too “new” and unstable for our country to, legally, get a handle on.

With any luck, many people will at least consider taking the advice of project leader and world-renowned addictions specialist Dr. Gabor Maté, and, instead of being allergic to evidence, will accept the possibility that their own curiosity will lead them in the right direction. Now that’s a novel idea. M

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