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Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected

By Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger
  • Read in 13 minutes
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Surprise by Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger

Surprise (2015) takes a closer look at the very concept of surprise, how it works and how to embrace and create it. What’s more, the authors show us how surprise can keep our relationships flourishing and allow us to live life to the fullest.

Key idea 1 of 8

Surprise is a feeling triggered by the brain when it fails to predict what will happen next.

In a world rife with uncertainty, we often experience the sensation of surprise, whether it delights us or upsets us. But how exactly does surprise work?

Surprise is activated when your brain fails to predict what will happen in the next moment.

Your brain is endlessly whirring away, trying to predict what is about to take place; if something unpredictable happens, it immediately shifts into action.

This function of the brain actually has an evolutionary advantage: when faced with a hungry predator, our prehistoric ancestors needed the sensation of surprise in order to react as soon as possible, and not end up as dinner.

So what goes on in our brain when we’re surprised? Interestingly, the surprise response consists of several stages – a surprise sequence.

Imagine yourself coming home to a room full of people yelling “SURPRISE!” The surprise sequence would go something like this:

Freeze phase: in a fraction of a second, the surprise takes away your cognitive resources and brings all of your attention to the object of surprise, leaving you with the well-known duh face.

Find phase: Your brain clambers through all the available information to figure out what on Earth just happened. In this case your brain realizes, “My friends gathered to throw me a surprise party!”

Shift phase: Now your framework for understanding your circumstances shifts; the way you viewed your situation before has been altered by the surprise. You might start to think, “I won’t have a typical evening by myself tonight, but instead I’ll be partying with my friends.”

Share phase: The previous three phases are hard work for the brain, so in order to lighten the workload, you share the experience with others. In this case, this means talking to your friends about it.

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