Science

Here's what happens after 'Surprise!'

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The moment this bag pops could be terrifying, but it's also a moment when your brain goes into overdrive — and possibly a great learning opportunity.

The moment this bag pops could be terrifying, but it's also a moment when your brain goes into overdrive — and possibly a great learning opportunity.

April Fool's Day may be over, but surprises can pop up any day of the year. So when the unexpected happens, what's actually happening inside your brain?

"Surprise is actually categorized as something unexpected or misexpected," says Tania Luna, the co-author of "Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected." "It’s anytime that you were wrong and your brain tells you about it.”

When people are surprised by something or someone, she says, the brain goes through the “surprise sequence.”

“It’s a strong neuro alert that tells us that something is important about this moment and we have to pay attention,” she says. “Our cognitive resources are basically hijacked and pulled into the moment. That’s one of the things that’s really uncomfortable for some people, but also exciting for some people because your attention is completely in the moment.”

Surprises actually cause humans to physically freeze for 1/25th of a second. Then they  usually trigger something in the brain that Luna calls “find” — a moment that causes humans to generate extreme curiosity in an attempt to figure out what is happening.

“The next thing is 'shift,'” she says. “If the surprise is something that forces you to change your perspective, then you have to change the way you’ve been looking at things. If I wasn’t expecting you to surprise me or give me a gift and now I’ve just gotten this pleasant experience, I have to change the way I think about you — and maybe even our whole relationship.”

Surprises also intensify emotions, for better or worse. If we’re surprised with something positive, we’ll feel more intense feelings of happiness or joy than we normally would; if we’re surprised by something negative, our feelings of anger, despair or unhappiness will also intensify.

Luna also runs a business, Surprise Industries, geared toward making people benefit from the surprises in their lives. “I think about surprise in two perspectives: Embracing it and engineering it,” she says. “You have to train your brain to be more comfortable accepting surprise, and by that I also mean surprise readiness — being comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity and change."

That's particularly important in today's world, she says, where people's attention spans are limited and constantly bombarded with new information or events. it’s also Important for people to learn how to orchestrate or engineer surprises, Luns says.

In business and in life, surprises are "how you get people's attention and delight them so you get them curious and excited about what you have to offer.” 

This story is based on an interview from PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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