Do you like surprises? Some people do. Others most definitely do not. But despite these differences at an individual level, there are some constants with surprise – like the fact they are usually very memorable. A surprise birthday party. A piece of unexpected news. An unusual occurrence maybe.
But surprise is an emotion with a difference. Because most of our “basic” emotional reactions (which surprise is often considered to be) are either positive, like happiness, or negative, like fear or anger. But not surprise. Surprise can be either positive or negative depending on the situation and the person.
Similarly, unlike our other emotions which generally indicate whether we should be approaching something or avoiding it, surprise can potentially do both. This is because it is important for a completely different function – for learning.
But surprises don’t always have to be big. They can be small too. In fact, you probably have surprises, or unexpected occurrences, happen to you every day.
A life full of surprises
When you were a baby, you will have come across surprises all the time. It is the way you first learnt about the world. And each surprise got encoded into your young memory to aid your development. For example, a recent study at Johns Hopkins University showed how babies use the unexpectedness of their environment to guide their attention, specifically focusing on things which went against their expectations and which evoked surprise. This surprise meant that they actually learned the information better and it also caused them to explore their environment more thoroughly.
The same applies to adults. Surprises, unexpected experiences, and novelty can all help you learn and remember better. And assimilating this type of information into your bank of knowledge means you can make better predictions and plans about what might happen in the future. You can make more effective decisions based on your experience. And you can gain additional insights to put together as that next creative idea.
Your brain is wired to be responsive to the unexpected at a completely fundamental level. It is built into the brain’s reward system where dopamine is released from brain cells in your basal ganglia not when you have a pleasant experience, but when that pleasant experience is better than expected – when it is unexpectedly good. Similarly, you get a reduction in dopamine release when something is unexpectedly bad.
But when things go as expected, even if they go well, you don’t see this same dopamine release profile. In other words, the dopamine is particularly sensitive to the unexpectedness of your daily experiences, and this helps to determine how concretely the information is stored in your memory. It also guides you on what actions you should do next, and helps provide the motivation to carry out these actions.
Novelty as an opportunity
Your ability to cope with surprises and with the unexpected stems from how your brain deals with novelty. Whether it evokes fear or curiosity. Whether it is deemed pleasant or unpleasant. And whether it should be avoided or approached. Where you fall on these continua will differ between you and the next person, and this helps to explain why people react differently to unusual and unexpected circumstances.
And although familiarity gives you stability and security, novelty can mean opportunity. What’s more, your perceptual systems are fine-tuned for detecting novelty. Also, you have specific novelty mismatch detectors in your hippocampus which are designed to tell you when you have discovered something novel.
Becoming tuned in to these novelty detecting brain signals, which can often pass under your mental radar, allows you to more readily notice and pick up on these messages, integrating them into your thinking and turning them into successful opportunities. They could even be the source of your next big breakthrough idea.
A balance between familiarity and novelty
When we find ourselves living in a chaotic and fearful world, we often crave for stability and security. But there always needs to be a balance between the expected and the unexpected. Between exploration of the new and exploitation of the old. Between stability and uncertainty.
And your brain is designed to support this balance by having systems which reward the unexpected, alongside biases for preferring the familiar. Getting this neural balance right means you can have a degree of emotional and mental stability, and can still seek out the unexpected opportunities that your brain is so good at picking up on.
So next time you come across something surprising or unexpected, take a moment to review what it might be teaching you. Is there an opportunity here? What can I learn from it which will allow me to make better decisions? How does this adjust the strategy I have in place?
It is all part of the process of building yourself a better brain.