We all know the feeling of someone surprising us. It’s usually in a good way when it’s something we’ve always wanted. The surprise enhances the moment, heightening excitement and elevating our senses.
Like all of us, your brain responds to surprises. You might experience a surge of adrenaline when your car runs over a pothole, or you might feel confused on a new day when you realize you’ve forgotten to brush your teeth. While these extraordinary events may cause you some anxiety and distress, your brain responds differently to everyday events, like receiving a promotion at work or hearing the good news about a relative. These small, everyday events bring on rapid changes in your brain, which can lead to changes in your behavior, mood, and emotions.
Surprising events trigger our amygdala
The amygdala, your “fight or flight” center, lights up when confronted with an unexpected event. For example, you might experience mild anxiety or fear when you’re driving down an unfamiliar road at night. To deal with that fear, your body produces hormones that help you stay focused and alert, making you less likely to panic. The amygdala also regulates your autonomic nervous system (your involuntary nervous system), which controls many of the basic bodily functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, digestion, and reproductive systems. This all happens in a matter of seconds.
The amygdala is responsible for emotions
The amygdala is responsible for emotions, and many of us are familiar with its role in causing us to feel afraid or shocked. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered something else about the amygdala, which may affect how you react to unexpected news. This brain region responds more strongly to negative events than to positive ones. When scientists studied the brains of people who had recently experienced rejection, they found that the amygdala was activated more strongly than the brains of people who recently had gained something or someone.
The amygdala uses oxytocin to release chemicals in the body
Have you ever had a moment so devastating or surprising that your body went into “fight-or-flight” mode? Your heart rate sped up, and your pupils dilated, and in a split second, you went from being totally composed to suddenly being in a state of high alert. That’s your brain responding to surprise, and according to a new study, it’s using oxytocin to release chemicals in the body to help overcome its reaction.
Oxytocin helps the brain feel safe
Oxytocin, the ‘miracle’ hormone, is a chemical that makes us feel connected with other people and with our environment. And when we are safe, happy, or in love, we become flooded with oxytocin. But oxytocin doesn’t just make us feel good; it also helps our brains process unexpected, even stressful, events. New research uncovers how this organ responds to stressful situations and how oxytocin helps us feel safe and protected.
Have you ever been completely surprised by something? Maybe it was a shocking event or something that completely blindsided you. Either way, observing these responses in our brains can give us insight into the sometimes mysterious nature of our thoughts and feelings.
As humans, we constantly learn and adapt to the world around us. After experiencing something for the first time, our brains have to figure out how to make sense of it. However, when faced with an unexpected situation, our brains may respond by activating a survival response designed to protect us when we perceive a threat.
The brain is primed to latch onto unexpected events, and this response can make us feel great even if we don’t make sense. Surprises trigger “excitation” in the brain’s reward system, and those feelings of joy can boost our performance, creativity, and motivation. A small bit of excitement, then, can go a long way.