Look at Life: Surprises

7th December 2018

It's Good to Expect the Unexpected

By Lisa Botwright

When my husband and I were first together, he casually mentioned that when he was a child he used to go looking for his Christmas gifts ahead of the big day. I was absolutely horrified; such monstrous behaviour was nearly a deal-breaker. (I reminded him of it a little while ago, and he said, very cheekily, ‘Oh yes, I still do. That way I can prepare for disappointment.’)

Gift-giving and receiving play a huge part in generating Christmas magic. I’d hate to know what I was getting beforehand; for me, surprises are all part of the fun – and I know I’m right: this is something that I can even back up with science. According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, ‘the brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones.’ His study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that our neural reward pathways, which act as high-speed connections to the pleasure centres of the brain, respond much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli than to their pleasurable effects. In other words, our brains are more active when exposed to a surprise; more so than when exposed to something we simply like and find enjoyable.

I’m fully on board with this idea. I get a real jolt of pleasure, for example, when my favourite song comes on the radio, despite the fact that I own the CD and can listen to it any time I like; and when I go to a concert, I’d much prefer to have that frisson of excitement when the band reappears to do an encore, rather than having downloaded a set list that tells me exactly what they’re going to play and when they’re going to play it.

Which leads me to the point that the way we consume our entertainment has changed exponentially over the last decade or so. I still listen to the radio in the car, but I stream it when I get home. I hardly ever watch terrestrial tv in real time any more, preferring to access box sets and films digitally to enjoy whenever I like. This is a social and cultural phenomenon that’s become hugely popular due to its convenience, but – spoiler alert – also has its disadvantages.

I’m not one to reminisce sentimentally about the ‘good old days’, but one thing I do miss is the camaraderie that comes from watching the same tv programmes at the same time; when we all used to switch on BBC1 at 9pm on a Sunday night to catch the latest drama serial and then we’d all talk about it at work the next day, and read about it collectively in the papers. We may still be watching the same things – episode one of autumn’s tv hit 'The Bodyguard' had a record total of 10.4 million viewers – but only 1.2 million of them actually watched it on the day and time it was first aired.

I wonder how many of the 9 million who caught up with it later, like me, abhor spoilers. How many of us had to be exceptionally, exhaustingly vigilant to circumvent the avalanche of media analysis (or avoid speaking on the phone to a mother who’s just itching to dissect the plot). Because nowadays, it’s not just a matter of determinedly ignoring the newspaper racks; with the omni-presence of the internet, it means living off grid completely. And woe betide anyone who complains about this, as you’ll just be labelled a ‘spoiler-whinger’: people who are ‘rude, spoilt, arrogant and annoying for everyone else’ according to journalist Sali Hughes, who, nonetheless makes the good point that ‘it’s simply not possible to reach a consensus between millions of people to avoid talking about what is a culturally relevant TV show, purely for your convenience.’

Some people say they don’t like surprises because they don’t allow you to be prepared, or they take you out of your comfort zone, or even that they take the consent out of things… But, claim Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger in Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, ‘so long as we fear vulnerability, we play it safe and stop ourselves from exploring”. They argue that ‘surprise, whether good or bad, is important for bringing vitality to our lives’.

I might just write these words of wisdom down on several pieces of paper, and leave them in all the places that my clever clogs husband thinks his presents might be hidden… Surprise!

Find Your Local