Engineering surprise

Whether we love them or avoid them, surprises bring vitality to our lives
Surprises come in many shapes and sizes. The unexpected can delight, startle or freeze us in our tracks. But surprise is more than a short-lived shock to our system. Be it joyful or dreadful, surprise triggers brain processes that help us gain new perspectives. And the brain’s chemical response helps focus our attention.An article by Jill Suttie in Greater Good Magazine looks at Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected. The book by psychology researchers Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger points out that surprises, good or bad, bring vibrancy to our lives. The two encourage “engineering surprise.”

First, we “freeze.” We simply stop momentarily (about 1/25th of a second). Next, we enter the “finding” stage. We try to figure out what is happening. In the third stage, depending on what we “found,” our perspective “shifts.” In our last stage — the “sharing” stage — we let others know about what’s surprised us.

The authors point out that we can engineer each of those stages to invite more surprise into our experience. For instance, actively engaging curiosity during the “find” stage. Instead of just looking for explanations, asking questions may result in seeing a person or situation in a new light.

Life serves all kinds of surprises. Unwelcome scenarios like sudden pricey repairs or a tough medical diagnosis can’t be avoided. Building coping skills can help. One method is finding the positives in negative circumstances. Nurturing our relationships day-to-day makes it likely we’ll have the support we need when faced with harsh surprises.

Some people prefer to never experience surprise. They’ll do anything to avoid it. But that’s a recipe for stagnant existence, “So long as we fear vulnerability, we play it safe and stop ourselves from exploring,” write Luna and Renninger.

Luna summed it up in an interview with WNYC’s The Takeaway, “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…being comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity and change. Especially these days, that’s an incredibly important skill.”

“Surprise is the greatest gift that life can grant us.” – Boris Pasternak

This is your brain on surprise

A 2001 Emory University and Baylor College of medicine study resulted in something … unexpected.

Scientists thought that our reward pathways – the lightning-quick connections to our brain’s pleasure centers – reacted to what we like.

This idea was tested by squirting either fruit juice or water into the mouths of the study subjects. As the liquids were squirted, researchers recorded participants’ brain activity using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).

What did they find? The subjects’ reward pathways responded most intensely to the unpredictable squirts rather than to the pleasure of predictably squirted liquid.