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The psychology of surprise. And why we crave it.

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

the exhiliration of learning how to catching a wave IS pretty amazing, over-riding any fear and apprehension.

Image Ben Battle for the Wave Project Cornwall

But what's going on in our brains that makes surprising things extra-special? What's happening in the biological chemistry of our twitching nerve synapses that relay events to our bodies and emotions? And can we make more of the reward aspect of surprise to lead happier lives?

Lifting lockdown brings surprises - good and bad

This got me thinking about lockdown. The relief we feel as lockdown slowly opens up, is also tinged with the ebb and flow of apprehension and fear for many. Lockdown brought a much-needed appreciation for nature, and our connection and responsibility to the natural world and to the simple pleasures of life that we all missed. A slower, natural pace, that helped us reflect and restore ourselves. The 'pleasant' surprise of sun on our faces despite the cold spring air.

This was juxtaposed against the ramping up of our technology, our biotechnology and our collective ability to 'be agile' as we tried to embrace the change and uncertainty that the pandemic brought. Zoom stoically plugged the gap. Work meetings were possibly more productive as people become skillful at their online 'impression management'. But we all got an extra kick from those extra surprises from the trouser-less zoomer revealing a litte extra than intended.

And here was my epiphany. It was these surprise moments that gave our virtual lives a dash of real life happiness. Some much-needed spontaneity and fun. Delving into this, it's clear that surprise is often a psychological stimulant to happiness.

'It was these surprise moments that gave our virtual lives a dash of real life happiness'

The book Why Humans Need Surprise, explores this scientifically. Suprise initiates a sequence of stages in the brain, according to the authors. Firstly, there's 'freeze' - where you are literally stopped in your tracks. Then 'find' - where your brain computes what's happened. This moves to 'shift' where you might weigh up conflictings options or scenarios, then finally 'share' - when we seek out others to share our surprise with. So that makes sense, we've all experienced this stopping of time and extra flurry of brain cells when we're surprised.

Making sense of surprise

Surprise causes our brain to wake up and work hard to process this new information through the senses of touch, taste, smell, sound, sight - literally to make 'sense' of what is happening. The nucleus accumbens (the brain's pleasure centre) lights up. Our brains are literally lit up "like a Christmas tree" if seen on an MRI scan when someone is experiencing surprise. The brain then fires off dopamine in your brain, (one of our happy chemicals) which has the combined effect of increasing the intensity of emotions we feel as the brain works to understand what's happened. Surprise enhances emotions, and happiness.

Nip on to social media and you'll see a host of surprise soakings, all producing waves of positive emotions as our lives are virtually lit up. We enjoy it more the more unexpected it is.

Memes and social media build collective intensifying of emotions and sharing into an art form

My wave-soaking on the rocks below was exhilirating purely because of the dynamic change it brought to my life as a whole. A rapid rollercoaster of instant thoughts zapping around my frozen brain - 'I need to change! I should have been on a higher rock. Can we continue this shoot?' An enhanced experience as I then needed to change, so went for a swim, where I bumped into Rob and learnt about the Wave Project Cornwall. An extra connection and addition to the day, thanks to the element of suprise. More about The Wave Project's work with young people and surfing later!

The next scientific link, is the one linking to effect to surprise to the effect of addiction. This 'surprise-reward' dopamine hit has recently been discovered as work in a similar way to drugs, such as cocaine. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that;

'surprising someone with natural, healthy stimuli like juice or water can activate the brain’s reward center to the same degree as cocaine and other drugs — could help researchers better understand the biological basis of drug addiction'

Read that again. To the same degree as cocaine and other drugs. Our brains seem hard-wired to enjoy surprise and unpredictibility - like a drug which we might crave.

Making a massive leap of pseudoscience here from reading round this subject (and apologies to those in drug abuse world) I hypothesise that we could fix a heck of a lot of addiction by swapping detox centres instantly with outside activity centres.

Anyway. The buzz from adrenalin fuelled extreme sports like wake-boarding or bungee-jumping is well-documented. But for many of us who are not quite to gung-ho, we can increase our natural highs - the walks, the sunsets, the healthy food and exercise - if they also contain the element of surprise. So if you feel someone may be a bit flat, get those little natural surprises going.

So what happens when surprise (our drug) is missing, like with lockdown? This could be the reason why people are racing to their juicers and recipe books to mix it up a bit, not just to be healthy, but to create more surprise in their lives. We get a kick out of the anticipation, the suspense, mystery and the unexpected - when we believe it's safe.

"But I don't like suprises..."

The opposite of this, is when we associate suprise with something that we believe may be unsafe. We put up barriers against surprise and the unexpected. We compromise our lives, let them become mundane, and allow them to stagnate. Maybe this is due to having bad experiences with the more unpleasant type of surprise, or a personality type that is resistent to change for whatever reason.

So what about when someone says that they don't like surprises. Is this to do with fear? The fear of being made to look stupid, or doing something unplanned and being unable to enjoy the change or unexpected results. Of not doing it their usual way. To not allow the magic of innovation and change to improve your life, but let your life quietly stagnate.

The good news though, is that you can learn to find the good in surprise, and train your mind and brain to link it to positive effects. Just as we train our bodies, we can train our minds. And with practice, being positively receptive to suprise can become second nature.

Reframing unpleasant surprises

This is where the concept of reframing comes in. Reframing can turn a life-changing surprise event, even furlough or redundancy, into a positive one.

Reframing uncertainty or change from unpleasant with negative associations and feelings to a chance to be curious, to learn something new, to expand your experience and thinking trains your brain to enjoy surprises. To make the most of them, to see the silver linings in unexpected events, whatever they bring. This is so succesful, the stoics even built a philosophy around it.

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” Marcus Aurelius

Reframe your surprise as a pivot

It used to be lean in, but now it's pivot. The more open-minded and flexible you are, the more you are able to successfully embrace new experiences and new ways of working. Innovation and being able to pivot (the key take-away from our Covid work world) has helped businesses stay one step ahead of any lockdown work challenge.

Pivoting will keep us fresh and ready for any opportunity that may arise. This is resilience, in action. Reframing your thinking, so you can re-evaluate events and see different perspectives and positive action, despite how things might initially appear.

And I think this is where lockdown hit some hardest. There was a common theme in the coaching world during lockdown. Despite valiant attempts to organise, keep routines, learn new skills, it was the lack of a daily fix of surprises and spontanteity that drained people. The boredom and routine of every day morphing into each other, with each day's experience becoming less special.

The science and psychology behind suprise is deeper than it seems, but our lockdowns woes make a whole lot of sense now. The post-pandemic backdrop is awash with theories to help people cope with stress, anxiety and burnout. Recognising that there is a new 'normal' and that embracing or even creating surprise will win the day as we choose our path, step by step, out of lockdown.

“By embracing and engineering surprise you can make our whole world richer,” the researchers write. “You can inspire wonder, connection, vulnerability, growth, and creativity.”

The link to wellbeing and the natural environment is well-proven with an increasing body of evidence-based science around ecopsychology which focuses on the emotional and healing connection between humans and nature. As I was getting soaked from rocks to waves, I came across Rob, enjoying a surf and wondering what we were doing. A happy coincidence as he's part of the charity Wave Project Cornwall, where they use Surf Therapy - an alchemy of body, nature and mind - to help young people and children. They measure 17 personal and social aspects from self-esteem, resilience, confidence, social trust, positive functioning and friendships to show the impact that surf therapy has on young people's lives. And it works. I have a feeling that surprise is part of the magic behind this as well.


Ella is a trained, accredited Life Coach & licenced Firework Career Coach. She has a background in marketing, internal and change communications, with experience across large corporates to smaller charities. She uses a positive psychological approach to coaching & consultancy 07597157194

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