Exploring Your Inner Neophiliac (Part 1): Winifred Gallagher

If you could spend a few minutes watching a gang of monkeys play, you’d soon identify the cautious “neophobes,” fearful of all things new, who peek at you from behind a barrier.

And you’d easily distinguish them from the outgoing “neophiles” and “neophiliacs,” who approach you in hopes of a treat, when the latter aren’t too busy showing off or fighting.

For that matter, if you’ve been acquainted with some skittish, extroverted and feisty cats or dogs, you’ve experienced firsthand what the nascent fields of animal emotion and personality have documented: The tendency to either approach or avoid novelty is the most important, stable behavioral difference among individuals in the same species, period.

We humans, too, show big personal differences in certain enduring attitudes toward newness and change. Even infants express preferences for familiar or unfamiliar objects.

Whether your own tendency is to approach or avoid novelty, or to think it over first, that temperamental inclination, which is about 50 percent inheritable, will be manifest in the things you do and the way you do them, from learning a skill to walking into a party of strangers.

Science of Novelty

Through the ages, scientists have proposed many theories to explain our varying reactions to the new and different. In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates identified three categories: Optimistic, energetic neophiles who crave novelty he called “sanguine.” Fretful, moody neophobes were “melancholic.” Irritable, impulsive neophiliacs were “choleric.”

Modern psychologists assert that we vary quantitatively in our approach to the new. If you’re among the majority in the moderate middle, you express your affinity for novelty in countless everyday ways. Maybe you delight everyone at your office by figuring out how to do a boring job in a more interesting, efficient fashion. Perhaps you sign up for exotic vacations, or just choose a film from Bollywood instead of Hollywood.

Largely thanks to technological advances, biologically informed research on temperament is providing the best insights into neophilia. In his classic research on boldness and shyness, Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard University, exposed infants and small children to mildly stressful forms of novelty -- noise, sour tastes, unfamiliar objects or people -- while he monitored their behavioral and physiological responses. He found that certain fearless tots, most of them boys, clearly warranted the label of “bold.” Their physiological markers are a very low heart rate and a more active left brain. Their active, spontaneous behavior and zestful, bring-it-on attitude toward new things bespeaks the instinctive energy and drive that Freud called “libido.”

Story Musgrave, best known as the astronaut who repaired the Hubble telescope while floating in space some 370 miles above Earth, expressed the neophiliac’s strong bold streak as a child on his family’s thousand-acre New England farm. Describing himself as a “born explorer,” he told me, “I was in the forests alone at night at the age of 3 and on the rivers in my home-built rafts at 5.” Musgrave would put in nearly 18,000 hours in civilian and military aircraft as pilot, instructor and acrobatics specialist. He would also make some 600 parachute jumps, including free falls to study human aerodynamics.

‘A Restless Wanderer’

Supplying insight into the born thrill-seeker’s low-idling temperamental sangfroid, he said, “I’m a restless wanderer, but in a calm, serene and mindful way -- certainly not agitated or frenetic.” Now retired from NASA, Musgrave said his personal goal has never been money or fame, but simply “to live on the high ground of ultimate performance just for the sake of it, with no other gain.”

An astronaut’s uninhibited approach to novelty exemplifies fearlessness, but a neophiliac’s behavior stems from more than just a lack of anxiety. Very bold individuals also respond more to reward than to punishment, and even react less strongly to what anyone else would consider agony.

In addition to boldness, neophiliacs are apt to have a strong streak of Hippocrates’ choleric disposition. This tendency to act first and ask questions later, which modern psychologists call “irritability” or “impulsivity,” comes in handy in the kind of high-octane situations that are familiar to Navy Seals and others of that feisty ilk. In primate populations, the trait overlaps substantially with a readiness to explore new environments, both physical and intellectual.

The legendary bongo-playing physicist Richard Feynman, who had a fine, if unremarkable, IQ of 125, exemplified the creative neophiliac’s flexible, open attitude toward new experiences and ways of thinking. In addition to his Nobel Prize-winning contributions to quantum physics, he was a passionate traveler, joker, artist and samba aficionado. He married three times, experimented with psychedelic drugs and sometimes saw the numerals in black-printed equations in living color.

Great innovators like Feynman often have a rugged, uncensored, warts-and-all view of life, which causes them to notice many things, including negative ones, that others gloss over. Colleagues of Feynman’s, after releasing some bit of labor-intensive research, often found that he had reached the same conclusions long before they did, but, unimpressed, he hadn’t bothered to publish his results. “These people set their own goals,” creativity researcher Dean Simonton said.

Most people at the extreme ends of the cautious-bold continuum are born with a strong genetic push in one direction or the other. Yet given the right experiences, some who begin life as shy neophobes develop into bold neophiles. The new field of epigenetics, which examines how genes are expressed in the real world, increasingly reveals the ways in which nurture sculpts a person’s inborn disposition into “second nature.” It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of this than Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Evolves

As a child, she would have fit right in with the most inhibited of Kagan’s young research subjects -- temperamentally high-strung neophobes -- often described as “sensitive” or “shy.” This group includes a sizable number of boys, but more are girls. These children generally have a more active right brain, which is linked to anxiety and moodiness, and their heart rates and other indicators of stress measure higher than average.

Young Eleanor was described by her biographer Joseph Lash as insecure, starved for affection and convinced of her own ugliness. But the shy girl’s life began to change when, at the age of 15, she attended a London finishing school. A feminist educator there taught her to be independent and think for herself, and Eleanor returned to New York with a notable increase in self-confidence and openness.

Despite her status as a wealthy debutante, she overcame her natural reserve well enough to serve as a social worker in New York City’s slums. Before long, she escorted her distant cousin and future husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a dashing and bold young Harvard student, on a tour of the pestilent tenements, which moved him.

After Franklin Roosevelt became president, and after Eleanor discovered his first affair, she turned mostly to women for friendship and probably romance. In addition, Eleanor had a very close relationship with her handsome, athletic male bodyguard, who may also have been a lover.

The once timid little “Granny” mastered many roles, including politician, social activist, world traveler, author, speaker and delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. A famous New Yorker cartoon shows a stunned coal miner deep in a tunnel watching a shining flashlight beam headed his way. The caption reads, “For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!”

Even for born neophobes, change is obviously possible.

(Winifred Gallagher is the author of “Just the Way You Are,” “Working on God” and “The Power of Place.” This is the first in a three-part series of excerpts from her book “New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change,” to be published Jan. 2 by Penguin Press. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 2 and Part 3.)

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    To contact the writer on this article: Winifred Gallagher at winigallagher@aol.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

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