Science explains why surprise brings us pleasure


If you’re reading this sentence, you just won $1,000.

April Fools! You didn’t win anything, but if you had, you’d feel incredible. In fact, even if you’d won $1, you’d feel pretty great, simply because the prize was unexpected.

Why get excited over something so small? It’s less about the money and more about the act of being surprised. In honor of April Fool’s Day we reached out to two surprise experts (yes, that’s a thing)—Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger, authors of the new book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected—to break down the science of surprise. Here’s what we learned.

Surprise brings us pleasure.

Notice how an unexpected flower delivery brings you more joy than buying the flowers yourself? Or how chocolates received as a gift taste better? This is because being surprised activates the pleasure centers in our brain and gives us a nice shot of dopamine, which makes experiences more enjoyable.

To demonstrate this, researchers from Emory University split study participants into two groups. One group received a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths at predictable intervals, while the other group received juice shots randomly. MRI scans revealed that the group that received the juice at unpredictable moments exhibited more activity in the reward center of their brain.

Surprise improves our romantic relationships.

Ever heard the saying “surprise is the spice of life”? Well, that’s definitely true when it comes to romantic relationships. Studies have shown that when people are bored in their relationship they become less attracted to each other. Adding the element of surprise can rekindle the lost spark.

“Romantic relationships need the perfect balance of surprise and predictability,” said Luna. “While a sense of safety and comfort is important to release oxytocin (the cuddle chemical) and build trust, too much predictability is a romance killer. Surprise, mystery, and anticipation boost our dopamine levels, which triggers attraction and excitement.”

Surprise helps us learn.

Studies have shown that surprise actually drives the motivation to learn and is an important tool in cognitive development. The act of being surprised means we were unaware that something—the thing that surprised us—existed at all, which then makes us wonder, how?

“Surprise is the ultimate feedback mechanism,” said Renninger. “It teaches us that we were wrong. Things didn’t go as we expected.”

More specifically, she said that surprise is your brain’s way of alerting you to pay attention, which in turn activates curiosity, excitement, and wonder—key elements to absorbing information. Not only that, “Surprise also builds new neural pathways in our brains, leading us to think more flexibly and creatively,” she said.

Surprise feeds our novelty bias.

As humans, are brains are hardwired to enjoy new experiences. This is why a new car, a new boyfriend, even a new text are all exciting in the beginning. “FMRI research shows that we process new stimuli differently than stimuli we’ve seen just one other time,” said Luna.  In fact, when new stimuli are involved, our brain releases more dopamine, once again giving us a shot of pleasure. Surprise, by definition, feeds off our love for the unexpected.

Surprise intensifies our emotions.

As we all know, not all surprises are created equal—nor do they have a happy ending—so our brains don’t necessarily love all surprises, but they do take all surprises seriously. “Surprises point us to dangers, opportunities, and new information,” said Renninger. “Research shows that surprise intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent, which explains why we love positive surprises and hate negative surprises.” This is why an unexpected proposal feels like the greatest moment of your life, but an unexpected firing can feel like the lowest.

Surprise demands our attention.

Surprise demands that we pay attention to whatever stimuli is surprising us, in part because we don’t know what it is. “Surprise hijacks all of our mental processes and pulls our focus into one thing,” said Luna at a TEDx talk. Not only that, by forcing our attention, surprise brings us into the present. Other studies back this up as well, finding that surprise makes people more aware of their surroundings. And it’s linked to the release of noradrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter responsible for vigilant concentration.

Surprise improves our mental health.

As we mentioned, surprise triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical that can do wonders for our brain, including stave off bad feelings. “When we invite surprise into our lives on a regular basis, we elevate our mood,” said Luna. Not only that, she says we build a tolerance for uncertainty, which in turn reduces anxiety.

All of these factors help our mental health, even reducing depression. “When it comes to depression in particular, surprise has a way of interrupting unhealthy rumination patterns, opening the door to new thoughts and behaviors,” said Luna.

Being in awe, a type of surprise, is good for you.

A recent study from University of California, Berkeley found that those people who experience more awe in their life—a type of surprise experienced when we find something impressive or powerful—may be healthier. Specifically, the researchers found that the “awe” group had lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a chemical that promotes inflammation, in their bodies. Lower levels of IL-6 is a good thing.

Renninger said the feeling of awe slows down our feeling of time and makes us more helpful to others. Not too shabby.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion’s love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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