DANCING ON THE EDGES
Is a nose for novelty wired
into our genes?
I gave a speech recently to a trade group that I began 25 years
ago, in what now seems like another lifetime. They were curious what their founder had
done during the decades in between, so the talk was about my own checkered past, bouncing
through several careers.
I opened with a joke about how my resume might be summarized as
"Have Brain Will Travel."
Over the years I've been a "hired head,"
retained to help clients with everything from marketing communications and public
relations to legislative advocacy and computer technologies before I segued back to my
first professional interest, psychology and matters of mind (if you're curious about my
past lives, one of these days I will put in a link to a profile they wrote about me).
Later on in the talk I observed that I've always been both a
shape-shifter and an edge-seeker. The shape-shifting is about detecting voids and being
drawn to fill them -- like in a room full of way- left liberals, Berkeley-bred me might
start to sound like a virtual Reaganite just to bring some balance back.
Feeling pulled to fill gaps helped sharpen my sense of smell for
opportunity, and that, in turn, goes to the edge- seeking side of me that also has a nose
A nose for needs: I've always been lured towards uncharted waters, the edge of the not-
fully- known where change occurs and I might be a catalyst. That's good news for keeping
stimulated, but bad news, at times, for stability.
I joked to my husband when we married that my history suggests I
need to shake up something major every five years or so, either my job, my home, or my
I am pleased to report here at the almost-five mark that it looks
like this husband (my second) will last. But the house may be on its way out unless we
You could use all the above, I guess, to call me a novelty junkie,
even a thrill seeker, if you stretch the meaning of thrill a bit. Physical risk has never
been my thing, but mental adventuring has always been a magnet for me.
The magnetic field of novelty: All bouncing brains, I suspect, feel pulled to a magnetic force around the
new and untried, although it takes many forms.
There was a report not long ago about a
"novelty-seeking" gene which suggests that magnetic force some of us feel may be
hardwired into our brains. They think it has something to do with a "longer"
form of a chromosome that codes for transmission of dopamine.
"People scoring high... enjoy exploring new environments, are
excitable and quick- tempered, and seek out thrilling situations. Those scoring low are
reflective, deliberate, and orderly.." said one news report about this
"Yeahbut," I said to myself as I read; I am a
novelty-seeker, but I am also reflective and deliberate, and instead of being
quick-tempered, I tend to be the opposite, especially slow to feel anger. Excitable, yes,
I could cop to that, but again, only around cerebral endeavors and creative challenges.
The mountains I climb are inside my own mind.
"... it is surprising that a single gene plays a significant
role in such a complex behavior.." said another observer who commented on these
findings. The key word from where I sit is "complex."
Even if this gene behaves as the scientists suspect, it represents
just one element in a brain stew full of ingredients, all of which are constantly
interacting with our environments. There are so many twists and turns in the specifics of
how any such genes might be expressed, it's even possible to be both a novelty- seeker and
a couch potato at the same time.
Heat-Seeking Psyches: As noted above, a nose for the new can be a blessing as well as a burden,
especially when it comes to being predictable.
Bouncing brains tend to be super- charged when psyched, but
paradoxically shut down if there is not enough stimulation around. "Paradoxical"
may be, in fact, one of the few adjectives you could safely apply to almost all of us.
Life can't be a perpetual bonfire you say? If so, I'd agree, but
I'd also suggest there used to be more to fire up the heat-seeking psyche than there is
today. In eras gone by, there were more mountains of all kinds to climb, more peaks we
hadn't yet seen, more challenges to overcome, more threats to defend from, more places to
go where the psychic payback was high.
Dancing on the edges has been a big source of "heat" at
the core of our species. Humans have this relentless urge to keep finding the edge of
whatever envelops us and push past it to something New and Different. Whether the N&D
will be better or worse is impossible to foresee, but better or worse is almost
irrelevant; the point is that New is Not Old.
When we still had unseen lands to conquer, unknown peoples to
meet, unheard languages to learn, untried lifestyles to try, those drives served us pretty
well. Now there are few things untried on earth, and few places (yet) beyond it that we
can pioneer. So few boundaries are left to bend, short attention spans are becoming
evermore common these days, and edge- seekers too often seek their "heat" in
non- legal ways.
The Catch- 22 for the novelty-driven is that everything new
becomes old eventually. But does that mean we are doomed to lives of endless searching?
Paradoxically again, people like us tend to keep seeking only
until we do not.