You Are What You Experience
Novel Environments and New Experiences Treat Mental Illness, Says Science
Your body ingests food to sustain itself, and likewise, your brain ingests different experiences to fuel your mental health — making your environment the primary source of diet for mental-health nutrients. So, just as eating junk-food will make you feel crappy and lethargic, crummy environmental experiences will leave you feeling the same mentally and emotionally.
Your environment is so influential that your brain will adjust itself in order to adapt to those environmental experiences. The most desirable outcome is that an environment will stimulate your brain to produce positive adaptations such as high self-confidence, sociability, and ambition. But when our environments are harmful and our experiences negative, the brain acclimates, resulting in negative adaptations such as depression, anxiety, and/or addiction.
Our earliest environments are completely out of our control (e.g., childhood care, socioeconomic status’ of our parents, and primary education), and they take effect on our brains before we know anything different. But there’s good news in adulthood. First, we have a great deal of choice in our environments and experiences. And according to science, that is some serious power. Because second, those original harmful adaptions can be readapted into healthier and happier ones.
Difficult to imagine for those who have seen his movies and standup comedy, celebrity comedian, Will Ferrell, formerly thought of himself an excruciatingly shy adolescent. The Ferrell we know today is a result of “fear extinction,” an exercise he self-prescribed and underwent in his early 20s. By making himself do kooky, embarrassing things in public, Ferrell engineered his own experiences, and instead of resigning himself to social anxieties, he outwitted and overcame them.
Known to professionals as “cognitive behavioral therapy,” CBT is all about creating new experiences, taking risks, confronting fears, and building confidence. Though psychologists have used CBT for over sixty-years, little has been known — until now — just how and why it works when it does. Neuron-scientific research is giving CBT a modern makeover, and scientists say the new insight will change the way depression, anxiety, addiction, and even autism are understood and treated.
Everything comes down to one thing — brain plasticity —the brain’s ability to adapt.
Plasticity is a kind of resilience. It’s when our brains revise emotional responses to old memories in order to make room for new memories and updated responses. Neuroscience is discovering plasticity is a skill that your brain can improve upon, and experiencing new, enriched environments is the key to bettering that skill.
There are two types of brain plasticity. The first, known as synaptic plasticity, occurs when fully-mature neurons sprout new and more efficient connections to other mature neurons, and this is where we create memories; i.e., learn. The second type of brain plasticity is called neurogenesis, which is exactly what it sounds like — neuron-genesis — the birth of whole new neurons. According to science, our environments manage and regulate neurogenesis through factors like stress, reward, and punishment. When exposed to new, enriched environmental experiences, neurogenesis ignites.
So, how can deliberately creating new experiences treat anxiety? The term is called fear extinction and neurogenesis plays two crucial roles. (1) In order to extinguish a fear, your brain must first recognize that the size of that fear is excessive in relation to the size of the threat. And (2) in order to detect the accurate size of a threat, your brain must be able to identify patterns and dissimilarities among relatively similar experiences.
But in order to accurately distinguish and characterize experiences, you need a lot of them. In fact, the more the better.
When lab-mice were exposed to new, environmental enhancements, their brains adapted, and the more novelty objects were introduced, the faster their ability to recognize those changes and adapt to them. The mice socialized more, engaged in less aggressive behavior, and conclusively, showed all signs of diminished anxiety.
In short, if you practice having new experiences, you will learn from them, accumulate successes, gain confidence, and ultimately, feel overall less anxiety toward the world around you.
But how can seeking and creating new experiences treat depression, and subsequently, addiction? The answer, again, lies in brain plasticity (i.e., new experiences). Bruce Alexander, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University, says addiction is an adaptation, and depression is its origin.
In his 2014 study, known as the Rat Park experiment, rats were kept alone in empty cages, and when these rats were given water spiked with opiates, they became dangerously heavy users. Without an enriched environment to provide happy experiences and socialization, the rats, like humans, became depressed. But when these same rats were moved to new cages with other rats, toys, wheels and tunnels, the previous addicts shunned the drugged water. Displaying increases in brain plasticity and resilience, stress hormones associated with depression fell, and their brains resumed normal production cycles of dopamine.
What does all of this mean for autism? One characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is difficulty making sense of the world. People with ASD struggle to distinguish differences in their environment, be it textile variances, color, sound, or even a happy face from an angry one. And when everything looks and sounds and feels the same, the world becomes a bowl of mashed potatoes — nothing sticking out, nothing making sense.
Our brains have a natural propensity to classify information based on similarities and differences, and then reclassify that information in the light of newer material. But if you struggle to perceive differences in the first place, you will need to compare and contrast as many different examples as possible in order to improve those skills. Simply put, practice makes perfect.
Traditional treatment for children with ASD has focused on strict and daily schedules, structure, and repetition. But this kind of redundancy deprives the brain of what it requires in order to learn, form new memories, and boost brain plasticity — new experiences — as in the case of fear extinction for anxiety. ASD experts are revising outdated treatment strategies that drill repetition, and are recommending, instead, enriched environments and novel experiences to stimulate the brain and increase neurogenesis, fostering brain plasticity.
Our life experiences build upon each other to construct our interpretation of the world and our place in it. You are what you eat, and you are what you experience. Understanding that most mental illnesses are faulty adaptations of the brain, we can tap into this science and use it to alter those adaptations and create newer, healthier coping mechanisms. Enriching our environment and deliberately seeking many different, novel experiences raises our chances of success due to sheer numbers and probability.
Be it an unfamiliar food, a fresh sex position, taking a different route home, or chatting up a stranger, science says if you want to become a more resilient, and mentally healthy person, you must step out of those comfort zones today.