Thursday, January 22, 2009

Learning By Surprise

Have you ever noticed that you remember something better, during an otherwise ordinary and familiar situation, when something novel happens?

I have. Again and again. My grad school students learn better when I shake up the typical classroom—rearrange chairs or tables into a new pattern, hop up on a desk to dramatize a point, play a new music composition no one in the class has ever heard, have a student team teach an aspect of the lesson, bring coffee and cookies, walk among or sit with the students instead of staying anchored at the podium.

My clients respond positively to the right kind of surprise as well. Best of all, these surprises make it easier to sell breakthrough concepts and dramatic change.

Right kind of surprise? Well, here’s the wrong kind: “Oh yes, the bill, it’s higher than you expected.” Right kind: “The graphics for this marketing campaign were inspired by a little piece of ribbon our art director brought back from a trip to Italy.” Then show clients the ribbon by allowing a twirl of it to unwind from an index finger. Surprise. Graphics were 90% sold before they left the art bag.

So I often employ some surprising element in my class lectures, seminars and client presentations. I never understood why it worked, I just knew it did.

Novelty detector in the brain

Now there’s scientific evidence of what happens inside the brain—and how learning and memory may be improved—when surprise occurs. A study undertaken by Daniela Fenker and Hartmut Schütze, researchers at the University of Magdeburg's Neurology Clinic II in Germany, and excerpted by Scientific American, explains that “novelty enhances memory.

Turns out our brains have a novelty detector—the hippocampus. Located in the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus is involved in discovering, processing and storing new sensory information. And the hippocampus becomes more active in response to novel stimuli than familiar.

The hippocampus compares incoming sensory information with stored knowledge. If these differ, the hippocampus sends a pulse of the messenger substance dopamine to the substantia nigra (SN) and ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain. From there nerve fibers extend back to the hippocampus and trigger the release of more dopamine. Researchers, including John Lisman of Brandeis University and Anthony Grace of the University of Pittsburgh, call this feedback mechanism the hippocampal-SN/VTA loop….

This feedback loop is why we remember things better in the context of novelty.

Novelty increases retention as well

Test subjects were shown photographs and given a series of words to remember while their brain activity was measured. The next day some of those same subjects were shown new images while others viewed familiar ones from the previous day. All the subjects were then asked to remember as many words from the previous day as possible. Recall was significantly better in the group that had just viewed new—novel—images.

Try surprise

In an earlier blog, Be more creative…do something different, I wrote how novelty can improve your creativity. Now there’s proof it enhances your memory. Try surprise and improve your abilities and your team’s. Or next time you’re giving a presentation, use an element of surprise to dramatize your point and aid your listeners’ retention. It’s fun, too. And fun is another proven way toward better learning.

Illustration credit: Brain Connection a Web resource from Posit Science.


Paul Hydzik grows brand value. As a brand marketer and award-winning creative leader, Paul has more than 15 years of experience driving business success from start-ups to blue chips. His strategic resume covers all aspects of B2B and B2C branding from go-to-market to consumer insight to identity development and all forms of marketing communication.

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