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Boost for your brain: surprise!

By Paul11 February 2015

Do you have a nice surprise planned out this Valentine's? Or maybe you will be pleasantly surprised this year? Lots of people like pleasant surprises, whether it be a surprise party or a letter from your secret admirer.

Research brain reaction to surprises

Researcher Read Montague, Ph. D., a neuroscientist at Baylor's Center for Theoretical Neuroscience thought that the neural reward pathways in the brain that connect the pleasure centres become especially active when we experience or do things we like. When he tested this idea by means of brain scan experiments, it turned out that these reward pathways respond more heavily to unexpected stimuli than to pleasant stimuli. In his research, he tested with an MRI (a scanner giving a detailed image of which brain areas are most active) how the brain reacted to surprising events.

Predictable versus unpredictable 

Participants of the study were exposed to pleasant stimuli, like fruit juice and water. In this study, a computer-operated device squirted the fruit juice and water in the mouths of the participants. In some cases the event was predictable, but in other cases, it wasn't. During the research, the participants were not aware that this was going to happen.

And guess what? The human reward pathways in the brain became most active when the squirts were unpredictable. The nucleus accumbens, the pleasure centre of the brain, reacted most heavily on the unexpected stimuli. This was regardless of whether the test subjects preferred water or fruit juice.

nucleus accumbens brain



The results

Against the expectations of many scientists, they found out that our pleasure centre doesn't always react the same to pleasant stimuli. It mainly responds to when the stimuli are unexpected. This means that our brain likes unexpected pleasures more than the pleasant experiences we expect, and this has little to do with what people say they prefer.