What happens in our brains when we have an experience?…and how can we harness this to open ourselves up to new ideas, theories and creative thought?
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
What is an experience?
When was the last time you had an experience? Was it last week when you went out for dinner with friends? Perhaps it was a few weeks ago when you paid someone to lock you in a room until you could escape via a series of puzzles? Was it just a few seconds ago when you took a sip of coffee? Or, is it right now whilst you read this? In a world that demands more and better experiences everyday, it can be easy to forget what an experience actuallyis, why we want them so badly and why they seem to be getting more and more expensive… Over the course of a few articles (and by falling down many rabbit holes), I am hoping to answer some of these questions and discover why experiences are so vital to our personal growth, creativity and happiness.
The Oxford dictionary definition of an experience is; ‘something that you do, or that happens to you, it is something of importance that is memorable or leaves an impression on you’, a broad statement that seems to cover all manner of things. I hope that by diving a bit deeper into what happens to our brain when we have an ‘experience’, we can begin to explore how we might curate and maximise the experiences we have to give rise to greater intelligence, new ideas and even a greater sense of purpose.
What happens when we have an experience?
By way of electrical impulses, life sculpts our brain, changing physical structure and function based on incoming stimuli like activity, emotion and thought. This is called neuroplasticity and it is happening in your brain all day, everyday. We have the ability to enhance and control (to a certain extent) what experiences we have and how we react to them, so that we can consciously improve and enhance the architecture of our brains.
Neuroplasticity is essentially the malleability of our brain. When we are young our brain is very malleable, we learn quickly and easily. We are less constrained by rules and what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We are more inclined to play, be creative and are generally less concerned about what people think. As we grow older our brains naturally become a little less malleable as we align ourselves to predefined rules and ideals. If we are not aware of it, as we get older our brain can become ‘hardwired’ into habitual patterns and fixed opinions.
If we continue to be open-minded and flex and challenge our thoughts regularly, then we can continue to shape the architecture of our brain well into our old age. The way we do this is through experience, whether it be reading a new book or learning the lyrics to a new song, we take in all these ‘bits’ of information and store them.
As we explore the world, discover new information and interact with others, even more knowledge is stored and gradually new connections between all of the information are wired in our brain. These new connections give rise to creativity, intelligence and scientific thinking.
Creative thinking and intellectual growth is gained from the understanding and acceptance of the dynamic nature of our intelligence; we need to embrace the necessity for us to consistently open ourselves up to new experiences. Many ideas come from discovering how things connect, rather than their differences, and taking notice of these connections. Successful artists, scientists and intellectuals throughout history have shown us the importance of collecting knowledge, observations and ideas, to make new connections between them and to elevate our imagination and creativity. Albert Einstein, for example, was inspired by all demonstrations of intelligence, learning from poetry, music and language to theorise about mathematical and scientific problems. He would often hold interviews with poets and writers, collecting the new ideas and applying them to his own theories.
Experiences allow us to grow — mentally, physically and spiritually (regardless of whether it is a good or bad experience). As a result, the more experiences we have had and the more diverse they are, the more opportunities we have had for growth and learning.
“Standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Bernard of Chatres
Learning from others
To make these connections, we may not actively need to learn from direct experience; we can passively experience something by observing or listening to other people’s experiences. The discoveries of those made before us, allow us to progress farther. As Bernard of Chatres stated in the 12th century, we are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, neatly summarising the process of education and the transference of knowledge across generations. We know which insects sting, we know not to stick pens in our ears and we know how to keep time, hopefully not through our own experiences but from what we are taught by our parents, teachers or mentors. This educational system enables us to focus on developing new ideas, encouraging quicker growth both at a singular level and as a species.
How can we stimulate more connections?
The trick to keep making new neurological connections in our brains and to open up new pathways is to consciously choose experiences that take us out of our comfort zone, explore things and areas of the world that we would not necessarily choose. For example, taking a different route home or buying a piece of fruit you’ve never tried before, can provide you with a new sensory experience. Instead of buying the same magazine or paper every weekend, buy one on a topic that you would not normally read about. Putting your pre-gained knowledge within a new context or frame of reference, you can enable new channels of thought.
Take the time to listen to people who have different views and opinions to you, be empathetic and understanding and be open to looking at something from another point of view. To have a broader, richer experience of the world, as Eleanor Roosevelt tells us, we must reach out without fear; we must take risks and be willing to challenge and change our thoughts and ideas.
It is essential to experience the world outside of our ‘bubble’ in order for us to gain an understanding of how the world works and to enable deeper connections to those around us. Through these connections we can find our purpose, achieve happiness and enrich our human experience.