View from the Colorado River

View from the Colorado River

In part 1 one of my series on life lessons gleaned from my recent family vacation I focused on the importance of boundaries. By taking care of my own needs first – with flexibility, acceptance, and humor – I was better able to show up for my family. I also learned how important it is simply to have fun and step outside of my own comfort zone, which brings me to the topic of novelty.

My Name is Robert and I’m a Scaredy-Cat

By novelty, I mean anything (idea, object, interaction, adventure, etc.) that’s new, anything that one wouldn’t normally experience or commit to in one’s workaday routine. As one ages there can be an assumption that there’s nothing new under the sun, which can contribute to a narrowing of experience. This sometimes has been my reality in times past. Thankfully, I have a habit of regularly choosing to shake things up and yet as far as I can remember it’s never been a conscious decision to seek novelty. It typically has occurred as an often organic transition in my life: perhaps a nonconscious novelty-seeking urge!

On the whole, I am, for lack of a better term, a scaredy-cat when it comes to what I perceive as high-risk activities. In fact, I tend toward anxiety in the face of any new experience, but when it comes to high adventure, thrill-seeking does not thrill me at all! Sure, I engaged in some reckless behavior as a younger man, but I rarely sought out purely visceral experiences. I was happy camping, backpacking, or pursuing purely intellectual adventure. In most ways, this path has served me well and yet I’m now beginning to fully metabolize the importance of “the new” as it pertains specifically to my own life.  

Given my druthers, I still prefer slowing down when I break away from my normal routines. I will stop and smell the roses, but my focus when relaxing generally is not to push myself. However, I’m beginning to whistle a new tune these days. I still enjoy lazing, but I’m discovering that seeking out new and challenging adventures is rejuvenating and essential to my mental health.

The Adventures of Dopamine and Plasticity

If we start with the simple premise that the human brain craves novelty, it’s worth asking why. In a nutshell: new experiences – and these could be intellectually or viscerally rewarding experiences – flood our brains with dopamine and dopamine makes us feel not simply rewarded, but motivated to learn and experience more. It’s a self-reinforcing system that if unwisely indulged can lead to addiction, but if neglected can lead to stagnation. Our task as humans is to find the golden dopamine mean that physiologically prepares and rewards us to push beyond our comfort zone in order to quite literally change our brains.  

The saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” is a simple summary of the concept known as brain plasticity. With new experiences, we create new neural connections. The assumption for many years was that new connections in our brain ceased at some point in time, but the relatively recent discovery of brain plasticity drives home one of the enduring tenets of psychotherapy: change IS possible.

I may be locked into some realities of birth, but I am not a prisoner. I can choose how I respond to my circumstances. In choosing and experiencing new ways of being or thinking, my brain has the capacity for growth. The notion of brain plasticity reveals that the childlike, or more accurately, the adolescent desire to throw caution to the wind and push against our boundaries is something that can exist positively throughout our lives. The notion of brain plasticity encourages us not to forget that the adventure does not and should not end with the onset of adulthood.

When experiencing “the new” we are reminded affirmatively of our own limitations. To immerse oneself in newness is to admit, “Wow, I never did that before!,” or “Cool, I didn’t know that!” My take on witnessing my own limitations this summer is that it has allowed me to confront my own vulnerability. In the final analysis, I will have known and experienced very little that this great big world has to offer me. Therefore, it is imperative that I engage with the unknown, the new, while I have my chance. I realize the circularity of the following statement, but I’ll say it anyway: I am most human when I am risking something in order to more fully experience my own humanness.

I’m not suggesting that we obsessively look for the next thrill in order to avoid self-reflection  only that we remain willing to take risks occasionally in whatever way best suits us in our current circumstances. We do not have to resign ourselves to becoming just another Man in a Gray Flannel Suit or to becoming just another Peter Pan. Instead, we can choose to remain curious and willing to be willing to look, feel, or sound silly, scared or imperfect; that is, to be vulnerable.

Ecce Homo, Behold the Man

When I recently found myself suspended a mile above the Grand Canyon in an EcoTour helicopter I discovered within my ear-to-ear grin a joyful co-occurring giddiness and terror. I had approached and zoomed past my comfort zone. My mind was blown (and transformed)!

Floating down the Colorado River and witnessing first-hand the forces of wind, water, and time I felt awesomely miniscule. Beaching the raft and feeling what 46°F water feels like (brrr!) and then beholding petroglyphs left by Ancestral Puebloan peoples in the Navajo sandstone, I felt like an adventurer!

Bouncing around the Arizona desert in a hot pink jeep I felt like, well, I felt like a tourist and I was OK with that! How else would have I seen John Wayne’s initials carved into a boulder or tasted manzanita berries for the first time?

I sought out these experiences, consciously and willfully and made a decision to stretch myself simply by having fun. Luckily, such experiences also help my brain grow. Novel experiences lead to new connections ready for learning, excitement, and more connection with my innate humanness. Who knew that a family vacation could do so much?

More to come: next, I’ll be sharing with you the value of not accepting the first option offered.