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What is Surprise?

I think that most of us know what surprise feels like, both good and bad. This month I'm going to help people to feel more of the good ones!


What is surprise?

The fairly straight-forward definition is that surprise is our reaction to unexpected and mis-expected events.

However, no one knows for sure if it is an emotion or a cognitive state. Perhaps it doesn't really matter which it is?

What happens when we are surprised?

Imagine you've just had one of those big surprises, like a loved one returning home unexpectedly or a surprise birthday party...

There is a specific sequence that you go through. Here's what to expect:

Phase 1: Freeze - You would imagine that the first expression would be one where the eyes and mouth are open wide, but that is not the case. It's a face that Tania Luna & Leeann Renninger (authors of the book 'Surprise') call the 'Duh Face'. It happens for only a fraction of a second, but it is a blank look on our face that doesn't show any self-awareness. The freeze phase also makes people stop what they are doing - the brain is so focussed on what has surprised them that everything else freezes.

Phase 2: Find - The freeze phase is very quick. Almost immediately our brain takes control again and we start to analyse what has just happened. It wants to find answers quickly and identify the correct emotion for the situation, so it will often try out some different facial expressions (to show the different emotions) before settling on which one is the most fitting. As the expressions are changed so quickly, it can be hard to spot them all!

Our brain also creates questions about the surprise ('How did you get here?', 'How did you organise the party without me knowing?', etc) and these questions can remain with us until they are answered. If they can't be answered then it can be difficult to get over a bad surprise, but they can also give us a feeling of excitement every time we think about a good surprise.

Phase 3: Shift - The length of time that it takes for us to experience phases 1 and 2 depends on the intensity of the surprise, and the intensity of the surprise depends on how well we can understand something. Our understanding is based on what's known as a schema. When you change your schema - what you understand about something, it is called the Shift Phase. Children have schemata that change and develop regularly as they learn and explore the world but as we get older, our schemata become harder to shift. Sometimes people try to explain things away, rather than shifting their schema, as this requires effort.

Phase 4: Share - Experiencing surprises is exhausting for our poor brains. To help with this cognitive burden, we talk about it with others. It can also help us make sense of our experiences. The more intense the surprise, the sooner and more often we want to share it with others.

Why is surprise good for us?

- Surprises help to both get and keep people's attention.

- When we're surprised our emotions intensify up to 400%. If we’re surprised with something positive, we’ll feel more intense feelings of happiness or joy than we normally would if we hadn't had the surprise. 

- Surprises help us to look at things in new ways.

- Accepting and embracing surprises helps you to become more comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity and change.

- Surprises help to create moments that we will remember and treasure forever.

What is Surprise? - A blog post by Paperbuzz

Doesn't that all sound amazing?

In my next blog post I'm going to look at how we can both embrace and create surprises so that they become part of our everyday lives.

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