100 Things You Should Know About People: #69 — Your Brain Craves Surprises

Picture of Lucille Ball looking surprisedIn Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I talk about the role of the “old” brain in scanning the environment looking for anything that is dangerous. This also means that the unconscious, old brain is looking for anything that is new or novel.

Water vs. fruit juice — Research by Gregory Berns (2001) shows that the human brain is not only looking for the unexpected, it actually craves the unexpected. Berns used a computer-controlled device to squirt either water or fruit juice into people’s mouths while their brains were being scanned by an fMRI device. Sometimes the participants could predict when they were going to get a squirt, but other times it was unpredictable. The researchers thought that they would see activity based on what people liked. For example, if people liked juice then they would see activity in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain. The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain that is active when people are experiencing pleasurable events.

Liking surprise — The nucleus accumbens was most active when the squirt was unexpected. It was the surprise that showed activity, not the preferred liquid.

Berns must have enjoyed the research since he was surprised himself!

What do you think? Are you surprised that people crave surprise?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Berns, Gregory S., McClure, S., Pagnoni, G., & Montague, P. (2001). Predictability modulates human brain response to reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21(8), 2793–2798.


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Posted in brain, psychology, research, surprise Tagged with: ,
5 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #69 — Your Brain Craves Surprises
  1. No, not surprised – I love how they use the surprise response to test babies’ ability to recognize patterns and expect outcomes (they measure how long it takes for the babies to get bored and look away, and find that they look longer when something is surprising).

    Just a note – I’m a marketer, not a developmental psychologist. I just love the field, and somehow all of my comments end up leading towards that instead of marketing!

  2. Josh Braaten says:

    Great post, Susan! I’ve heard one of the reasons we laugh is when there is a cognitive dissonance between what is said in the build-up of the joke and the punchline itself. Our brain is surprised by the punchline and thus, we laugh.

    Does laughing fall into the category of our brains craving surprises? Many of us seek out fine comedy as often as we can. It only makes sense that at least part of this stems from our brains craving surprises.

    Is this your blog post’s concept at play here too or does our craving for laughter stem from something else (perhaps some feel-good chemical secretion?)?

  3. Mike says:

    No, not surprised. In the dramatic arts, surprise is key to giving an audience pleasure. (Read Aristotle’s Poetics on the role of astonishment and reversals.) Athough I wasn’t terribly surprised I did find this post enjoyable, as usual. (Ironic, huh?)

  4. Ben says:

    How does this fit into the notion of people don’t like to see the unexpected when browsing the web or looking through a website. They want to see what they expect to see when clicking on a link.

  5. Livinhope says:

    Thanks for this article, really interesting. It’s helpful to recognise how the instinctual functions of the old brain influence our everyday behaviour since some are clearly less obvious than others. I’m wondering What primitive reactions influence the human inability to admit mistakes or drive our craving for one-upmanship? Are those ‘big ego’ reactions we often have rooted in our old brain? Is it just a dominance instinct or something more? You’ll guess I’m not a psychologist, but that doesn’t make finding out why we are what we are any less fascinating. Thanks again

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  1. […] when a character does something that doesn’t seem like her. It’s okay if the story takes an unexpected turn, but if my character was a grumpy misanthrope in the first chapter, he can’t suddenly turn […]

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