In every moment of every day, we’re making predictions.
Those predictions are mostly unconscious–we expect to see our bed when we walk into the room, we expect to get running water when we turn the tap, we expect our partners voice to sound the same as we remember it.
“The brain uses a bag of ad hoc tricks to build a streaming model of the world, or a general principle, like filling in disjointed images based on inference from new evidence and past experience.”
Most of the predictions we make each day are correct. But when when they are not, surprise ensues. Our attention is diverted, we feel a sense of distress, and our mental resources are asked to resolve the discrepancy.
Surprise in the distant past might have meant a life-threatening danger such as a wild animal, or a possible life-changing discovery such s a new food source.
Thanks to our loss aversion, we’ve mostly erred on the side of caution when it comes to curiosity–missing out on the food source isn’t quite as bad as becoming another’s food.
But we lack the same threats today as we did then, while our loss aversion and tendency to fear surprise remain in tact.
“Today, feeling surprise is rarely a matter of survival, but our bodies are still hardwired to experience it with the same intensity.”—Surprise
Loss aversion is holding us back from leading more fulfilling lives, mainly due to our unwanted fear of surprise, of uncertainty, of ambiguity and unpredictability. These unknowns make us uneasy, we see the potential change as a threat first, and an opportunity second.
But not all of our actions come under this preference for comfort and safety. While many of our big decisions force us into considering the risks, we actively seek to break this barrier of prediction more often than we might think.
Novelty and curiosity are essential aspects of human nature, but these days we find them when we feel we’re in a safe environment, when we are consciously aware that the risks are small.
Each time we listen to new music, we call upon our understanding of what constitutes good music, something that we’ve accumulated throughout our lives.
From birth (and perhaps even earlier) we were exposed to certain structures, rhythms, scales and instruments that moulded into our current idea of real music, call it a musical schema.
For some of us it’s blues, for others it’s eastern gamelan. Whatever your tastes, each time you listen to new music, you’re subconsciously predicting each subsequent beat, note, tone, melody et cetera, based on the schema you’ve formed.
And of course, as it is new music, your predictions will be off. And it’s precisely this novelty, this learning something new in a safe environment, that makes us enjoy it.
That is of course unless the music is too different, in which case it may be difficult to understand, too complex or ambiguous to enjoy.
Much of what allows us to enjoy novel music also occurs in our love of cinema, story, and art.
Most of humor is about breaking expectations. For many jokes the requirement is to lead people in one direction, and then go in another.
As Sam McNerney states in an article on Big Think:
“Humor arrives when we figure out how the punch line both broke and fulfilled our expectations. When this occurs we experience mirth, the reward of successfully connecting the dots of a joke.
Mirth, according to the scientists, is an evolutionary adaptation that evolved to reward the brain when it corrects a mistaken assumption about the world; it helps our neurons stay on the lookout for the gaps between our assumptions and reality.”
Like the music schema, we have schemas for life, and everything we know that it contains.
We have schemas for cats which include the notion that they purr, not bark. We have schemas for pigs, which includes their walking on four legs as opposed to flying.
So many of our mythological creatures, our monsters, and the things that give us nightmares as kids, break these schemas of what’s real.
We have zombies, dragons, witches and wizards, all of whom contain discrepancies with what we believe to be real.
“Monsters are defying the general laws of nature in some way. This speaks to the fact that things that violate the laws of nature are terrifying. And really anything that doesn’t make sense or causes us some sort of dissonance, whether it is cognitive or aesthetic, is going to be scary.”—The Atlantic
Why Is This Important?
When you think about it, it’s when our expectations are broken, when we are surprised, and when we are alerted to something that doesn’t fit into our schemas, that we learn.
Learning is about taking in something new, something currently unknown, and fitting it somewhere within our mental framework.
“Surprise of all varieties is a force of change.”—Surprise
Learning is a form of adaption. When we encounter something new, we must adapt to allow for it–we adjust to a new beat in a song, or a twist in the story. If we adapt successfully, we get a small hit of dopamine–we have learned.
What’s more, if we get more used to embracing these unpredictable moments, if we get more comfortable with the unknown, we may find ourselves taking better risks in more areas of our life, something we might find circumvents our loss aversion.
When we successfully adapt to new information, the dopamine spike we experience feels good, it causes delight as opposed to distress, which makes us more likely to engage in the behavior again. All of us experience that spike a little differently, which is likely why some people enjoy books while others jump from cliffs.
The Uncertain Seesaw
As with most things, however, balance is the key.
Living in total uncertainty would be downright unpleasant. Our habits and routines would cease to exist, we’d lack control over our lives as we fail to see both opportunities and risks, we’d live a life of anxiety.
“When the future feels unpredictable or the present ambiguous, our brains get locked into the Find Phase of the Surprise Sequence, mining away for closure that never comes. When change is the only constant, we find ourselves in a perpetual schema struggle, guarding long-held beliefs like gold coins and fighting off all threats to our sense of certainty.”—Surprise
But without it, our lives would be mundane and predictable, repetitive, lethargic. We’d experience what the authors of Surprise call hypostress, the near opposite of anxiety.
“We’re either biting our nails because we don’t know what to expect or we’re twiddling our thumbs because we know exactly what will happen next.”—Surprise
In the end, surprising ourselves may just be what provides our lives with the experiences and memories that we’ll look back on most.
Daniel Kahneman noted of our experiences that it’s the peak emotional content that is most easily recalled. While surprise itself is not an emotion, it is an emotion intensifier, by one account it takes the usual experiences of joy, sorrow, fear, and others, and intensifies them by 400 percent.
“Unlike other emotions, surprise has no valence: It is inherently neither good or bad. In this sense, surprise isn’t an emotion so much as it is an emotional intensifier.”—Surprise
Even bad experiences can turn into good stories. Frederich Nietzsche believed bad experiences are required for us to experience the good, we grow stronger for having overcome them. As the authors note in Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected:
“The truth is that bad surprises usually don’t end in despair. Most end in recovery. And many have twist endings in which the heroes of the stories don’t just bounce back but also bounce forward.”—Surprise
Novelty, a healthy dose of curiosity, and confidence in the face of uncertainty, are parts of life that should be cultivated. While balance is important, our natural tendency to avoid surprises keeps the balance off-set in favor of safety, we have to work to even it out.