What happens in our brain when we explore something new

Changing routes, testing a new menu… Exploration leads to a strong increase in attention, according to intense cerebral and bodily signatures. It is this process that seems to be affected in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

How about ordering food at a new restaurant tonight? This decision may not seem like much, but for your brain it involves very specific processes, details new work in the review. Heartbeat delay, pupillary dilation, specific brain waves and reduced confidence in our choices, exploration forces our brain to pay much more intense attention to our environment than usual.

Heart, pupils, brain: the body reacts to the exploration of something new

Imagine that you are in the car, where you are hesitant to change your way home from work to test the “traditional” baguette from a new bakery. You are then in the middle of an “explore-exploit dilemma”, where “exploiting” your usual bakery will give you bread of known quality and predictable traffic, while exploring to a new stall will only give you unknowns – positive or negative. Banking on a nice surprise, you are about to opt for exploration. Seconds before the decision is made, your brain removes alpha waves from your visual system, a characteristic effect of sustained attention, explain to Science and Future Valentin Wyart, who directed this work. Then, when you pinch the stub of your new wand, your brain is on alert: did you make the right choice? Your heart rate slows down slightly, with a delay in its beat. Your pupils dilate, an indirect sign that your brain has probably activated your noradrenergic system. The latter is particularly located in the locus ceruleus, cerebral area which releases norepinephrine, a neuro-hormone involved in attention.

Differentiate the signature of the exploration from that of the resulting behavior change

These discoveries, the team made them in the laboratory, thanks to an innovative methodology and meticulously ca[…]

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