29 May 2020

Go Explore!

Welcome back. Living in the countryside, my only concern during the state’s safer-at-home order was whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise during my predawn and afternoon outings. 

And now, all states have begun to reopen. Not being a healthcare worker facing more infected patients, I paid little attention to those protesting the lockdowns. But I didn’t see the point of carrying firearms and thought justifying the opening as American freedom was a bit much. Everyone is climbing the walls to get out and back to “normal.”
Common reaction to COVID-19 lockdown (from
The Free Dictionary, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynn3k8Sms6U).
Supporting that sentiment, a recently published study, completed long before the advent of COVID-19, found people are happier with more variety in their daily routines--when they go to new places and have a wider array of experiences (experiential diversity).

I’ll pass on the protest and review that study.

Study’s Use of Roaming Entropy
The researchers, currently affiliated with Miami, New York and Columbia universities, enlisted 122 participants (average age 23 years, 84 female) in New York City and Miami.

They continuously tracked the participants’ locations in the two cities for 3 to 4 months with GPS, quantifying the variability in an individual’s location each day with roaming entropy (RE).

RE was originally developed to index the explorative behavior of laboratory mice. Increased levels of RE reproduced key neural and cognitive effects of environmental enrichment.

For the study, RE summed the proportion of the day a participant spent in each unique location over the total number of unique locations in the environment. RE is higher on days a participant visits more locations with greater uniformity in the time spent at the different locations. RE would thus be minimum if all day was spent in one location and maximum if equal proportions of the day were spent in each unique location in an environment.

Geolocation tracking in Miami. One participant’s typical low (left) and high RE days. Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Map data by
OpenStreetMap.org contributors (from www.nature.com/articles/s41593-020-0636-4).
RE and Emotional State
In addition to tracking the participants, the researchers prompted them to provide assessments of their emotional state via a questionnaire sent to their mobile phones at random times every other day.

Across participants, self-reported emotion was more positive on days when RE was greater. When participants experienced more variability in their physical location--when they visited more locations and spent proportionately equitable time in the different locations--they reported feeling more "happy," "excited," "strong," "relaxed" and "attentive."

Assessing the Neural Effects
To better understand the neural mechanisms associated with RE and the emotional response, the researchers had 58 of the 122 participants return to the lab after the geolocation tracking to undergo a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging scan.

The analysis showed that participants whose diverse experiences were more strongly associated with positive feeling exhibited greater correlation between brain activity in the hippocampus and the striatum. The hippocampus is centrally implicated in both the representation of spatial location and detection of novelty; the striatum is a critical component of the motor and reward systems.

Wrap Up
Overall, the study demonstrates that, for people, just like mice, environmental novelty alone is sufficient to produce many benefits of neural and cognitive enrichment.

The findings demonstrate that objectively measured increases in the diversity of one’s physical environment are associated with increases in positive emotions. Further, the strength of this effect links with the hippocampal–striatal circuit.

And that’s at least one reason why people can’t wait to move on. Stay safe, thank healthcare workers and thanks for stopping by.

Study of experiential diversity, emotion and neural effect in Nature Neuroscience journal: www.nature.com/articles/s41593-020-0636-4
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-05/nyu-nad051520.php

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