As pattern-seeking humans, we have experiences, then generate an explanation by joining the dots of the pattern. I remember walking down a trail. A snake slithered across the path in front of me. I jumped. My friend, following several steps behind me, asked why I jumped. I said, “Because a snake just crossed the path.” I lied. The truth is I jumped when startled, and then realized it was a snake. If you don’t buy this explanation, consider this: Would I have jumped if a gardener, hidden from me by the bushes, had pulled a hose across the path? Yep! Jump first, explain second.
We think we jumped because we saw a snake. That’s because our consciousness notes the thinking and doesn’t notice the emotion, fear, which came first. The emotional response prompted the jump. During a surprise, we look to the environment for an explanation. We find or manufacture one, then we connect the dots.
Another curious result also occurs. If we were startled by a moving hose, but thought it was a snake, we would believe that this trail has snakes. We might even warn others, “Don’t go on that trail if you are frightened of snakes.” Even if we walked that trail every day for a year and didn’t see a snake, we’d still believe the trail has snakes. In the movie Pete’s Dragon, a logger saw a dragon (positive incident—seeing something) but didn’t see it again for the next thirty-five years (negative incident—not seeing something). The logger still believes in dragons. Once we connect the dots, a belief, it remains robust.
Because consciousness is a slow process, whatever has made it to consciousness has already happened. Humans survived a dangerous and chaotic world because of an ability to find order in disorder and put it into a context, what neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga calls a story. Gazzaniga asks, “What does it mean that we build our theories about ourselves after the fact? How much of the time are we confabulating, giving a fictitious account of a past event, and believing it to be true?” Through clever and intriguing research designs, Gazzaniga illustrates how this process takes place, how easy it is to make incorrect patterns, believe them, and then find supporting evidence.
Once beliefs are formed, the brain automatically looks for and finds confirmatory evidence to support them. When this happens, we get a small neurological burst (dopamine) for being “correct.” This self-affirmation feedback loop boosts our confidence further. Our personal beliefs provide a distinct way of extracting meaning from highly ambiguous and complex stimuli that enters our brains. Firmly held beliefs, right or wrong, impose meaning and a sense of control over an uncertain environment.
Using Surprise Strategically – Acting Surprised Creates a Surprise
When you act surprised yourself, you can create a surprise. Parents often do this intuitively as they try to encourage their young children, “Wow! I can’t believe you did that puzzle in just five minutes.” Seeing someone surprised raises our emotional arousal too. In our evolutionary past, when our companion appeared surprised by sudden danger or opportunity, those circumstances usually surprised us too. Vicariously experiencing their surprise similarly alerted us to fleeting danger or opportunity. Possession of information by someone else also triggers curiosity, a receptive state for incoming information. Humans have mirror neurons. Mirror neurons fire when we witness an action or emotion in others; we experience a version of it ourselves, as if we are having the observed experience. This is why we shiver when we see a spider on someone else’s neck or cringe when we witness a needle puncture as someone receives an injection. We share that experience. It’s also how we understand emotions and intentions, by subtly experiencing them ourselves when we observe them in others.
Surprise is Everywhere
Although professionals in industry and entertainment intentionally use surprise to create branding, powerful but unintentional instances of surprise-induced branding occur in schools, medical facilities, places of employment, and within families, teams, and other groups. We can learn from them; the strategic use of surprise, timed tactfully, can be a catalyst for positive mindset makeovers.
Surprise Activates One-Shot Learning
Scientists have long suspected that one-shot learning involves a different brain system than gradual learning, but they could not explain what triggers this rapid learning or how the brain decides which mode to use at any one time.
Researchers at Caltech recently discovered that uncertainty in terms of the causal relationship is the main factor in determining whether or not rapid learning occurs. Uncertainty spikes during a surprise: “What just happened?” With uncertainty, we need to be more focused to learn the relationship between stimulus and outcome. Researchers found that the degree of causal uncertainty instructs the brain to dramatically adjust the learning so as to engage one-shot learning when required.
This activation works like a switch: all or nothing. Researchers found that the part of the brain associated with complex cognitive activities, the prefrontal cortex, evaluates causal uncertainty and triggers instant learning if warranted. Importance is a designation our emotions determine. Once triggered, the brain recruits the hippocampus to regulate the emotions and initiate long-term memory storage. If not recruited for immediate learning, the hippocampus remains silent. The authors stated, “Like a light switch, one-shot learning is either on, or it’s off.” Although little is known about what level of emotional stimulation is needed to trigger one-shot learning, we do know it works as a switch, as an all-or-nothing activation. While other routes to one-shot learning may exist, the immense emotional burst of surprise is a definite trigger.
Shifting the Valence of Beliefs
Harvard researcher Alison Wood Brooks sees both anxiety and excitement as high arousal emotions, but anxiety is negative and excitement is positive. In her research, she put participants into stressful situations, such as singing competitions, public math exams, and debates. She instructed them to say either, “I am anxious,” or “I am excited.” When they said, “I am excited,” and they re-labelled the high emotional arousal from negative to positive, they overcame it and performed significantly better. They harnessed the high arousal part, and got rid of the negative valence. Brooks discovered that it was easier to change the valence from negative (avoid) to positive (approach) than it was to change their level of arousal.
Numerous similar studies looked at performance on math tests such as the GRE and found that students achieve higher scores when they recategorize anxiety as merely a sign that the body is coping. The U.S. Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: “Pain is weakness leaving your body.”
We can leverage our brain’s meaning-making disposition to effectively transform potentially negative events right as they unfold. Consider a scenario whereby first-grade student Samuel experienced frustration while working on math problems, and two possible comments typical teachers might make. Possible comment A: “Goodness, Samuel. You sure struggle with math.” Possible comment B: “Goodness, Samuel. Your willingness to stick with tough problems makes you a strong student.” The first comment identifies his experience and labels his frustration as “weak at math.” The second also identifies his emotional state but labels it as signifying a “strong learner.” With the second statement, Samuel will now experience a little boost of the motivator neurotransmitter dopamine whenever he struggles with math in the future. Statements such as these shape belief formation.