Science Articles

Surprise, Surprise !

Wed, 30th Nov 2005

Danielle Turner

If you want to be remembered - surprise someone!

Your brain will definitely notice ! In the dark, noisy, enclosed environment of a brain scanner I ask healthy volunteers to imagine they are experts on food intolerance - trying to help a patient who suffers from a range of weird and wonderful food allergies. Learning which foods do what, they lie on their backs staring at a stream of food pictures. Some foods cause their imaginary patient to react with a nasty allergy. Some foods seem pretty harmless, and some even prevent allergies. Then suddenly, just when they are settling in, feeling confident they can predict which foods do what, we surprise them. We don't jump into the scanner and shout "boo", but we may as well. At the moment when they discover an unexpected reaction in their imaginary patient an area in the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, lights up.

Researchers at Cambridge University coined a term "super-learning". They showed that if you are "super-surprised" you will super-learn. That is, the more unexpected something is the more you will learn about it.

Sounds like the latest fad for stressed-out students - make everything totally unexpected and get an A-grade! But it seems to work. Imagine you were taking part in my experiment. You have learnt that a particular food always helps prevent allergies no matter what it is eaten with. Then, bizarrely, you discover a food so powerful that it causes an allergic reaction in your patient even when eaten with the "allergy preventing food". It is totally unexpected and you remember much more about the extra-powerful food. Your brain remembers the unexpected.

When we scanned people performing this task we discovered the amazing specificity of the brain's response. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area in the important frontal area of the brain, lit up every time something surprising happened. And it lit up the greatest amount in the volunteers that learnt the most. The learning occurs specifically because the result was unexpected.Brainscan

So why did people learn so easily about the unpredictable allergy-causing food? Perhaps because human beings are highly tuned-in to detect the unexpected. Finding out about our environment is essential for our survival. From the moment we are born we are on the lookout, discovering new things around us and modifying our behaviour appropriately. We have the inborn capacity to revise and change our ideas in the face of surprises. Many argue that our ability to change and adapt to prevailing conditions is the fundamental cause behind our development.

It is interesting that we showed the area most sensitive to surprise to be in the frontal cortex. The frontal lobes of humans are much larger than in the animals we consider our nearest relatives; many scientists claim this area of the brain provides us with the ability for complex thought. We believe it is even more fundamental than that. This could be the area of the brain that drives all our behaviour, helping us to reconcile the unexpected in our environment with what we know from the past. This helps us to make predictions about events in our surroundings, to learn to control them and to create the society we live in today.


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