Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise. – Julie Cameron

There is much to be said for being nice to oneself. And a yawning gap between the thought of it and the experience. “I should”, “I will,”, “When I’ve…I’m going to…”. Takes me back (oh, the damned spiral we’re on in this blog) to that Walter Pater thing – he was Oscar Wilde’s tutor and said that you should live every moment at its fullest, “burn with a hard, gem-like flame”. Nothing can replace experience in itself – not the imagining, the memory, the planning, the writing.

The brain has a need for newness, for the fresh, for surprise (etymology of “surprise” – to take over, in meaning linked to “overwhelmed”) and new experiences do just that. The brain builds new neural pathways all the time (no road of perception ever has to be fixed – you always have the ultimate power to change it, even if you are stuck paralysed – the brain is everything). And this surprise from experiences (the old and the new – you don’t have to go white water rafting to refresh the grey matter) is – for me – one of those keys on the great clanking key chain of life.

The amygdala (a little nobbly, prehistoric part of our brain, way at the bottom and back) is where your fears live – it’s the scary dark forest of those irrational nightmares, the unspeakable dreads, the uncanny intuitive unease. It’s the bureaucrat that dictates how you’re going to respond emotionally to the world around you: simplistically, fight or flight. And like all efficient bureaucrats, the amygdala gets used to things – viz: “Aha, she looks a bit angry, she’s going pink in the face, that glass of water doesn’t look as though it’s heading for her mouth – DUCK!” It sees what’s coming – it gets good at predicting. Now….here comes some scientific but fascinating stuff.

Researchers back in 2001 realised something pretty good – that we respond better to surprise than we do to the pleasurable. I.E. things being unpredictable is important: it’s not just about knowing that the holiday or the yoghurt with honey will probably be very nice, as you imagine it, but it’s about the surprises – the unknowns – that arise from those (and completely random) situations which give the brain its biggest hits. In this study, interestingly, when you asked the human guinea pigs what they preferred (before they experienced it) and then measured how their brain reacted to the preferred thing and the other option when it came as a surprise, the surprise won every time.

So what is the gain, the big picture?

Well, if your brain gets tickled in its reward zones (and that’s what is happening here), it helps stave off depression (all forms) and boosts the immune system. A rewarding surprise gives you a dopamine rush (a disappointment gives you a dopamine deficit – your levels fall). (Dopamine is also responsible for your movements and the flow of information, such as memories, around the brain – a boost can be no bad thing, even for any hair-shirters out there). And it seems to be that these fluctuating dopamine levels make us get up and go seek more – without consciously being aware that we’re reward-seeking. Some extreme examples of the behaviour of “vulnerable” dopamine systems are thought to be gambling, super-pleasing, bulimia, anorexia. And for “normal” behaviour, when you feel good, you’re healthier, happier, and you of course impact on other people, you take action, and so on and so forth. The society gains.

So, dear readers (no Jane Austen I), give a surprise today and wherever you can, don’t disappoint!