The Human Spark

The science of human development

On the Unexpected

Violations of expectations activate brain and mind.

As each person moves through the day’s responsibilities their brain is anticipating the event most likely to materialize in the next moment. Although most anticipations are confirmed, occasionally the event violates what was expected and prediction fails. When that happens the brain automatically initiates a cascade that includes secretion of acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which generate a state of alertness that enhances the salience of the event and interrupts whatever the person had been doing. Consciousness is not necessary for this cascade. The brains of sleeping newborns respond to an unexpected sound, say a bell that follows a series of six tones.

An unexpected event automatically evokes an attempt to understand its origin and to assign it to a proper category. When either or both attempts fail, usually because too few of the features are familiar, an unpleasant state of uncertainty emerges that some adults interpret as fear or anxiety if, after several seconds of thought, they cannot classify or understand the event.

Some 16 week-old infants display an early form of this fundamental phenomenon. A relaxed infant suddenly hears a blend of female voices speaking sentences, such as “Hello baby are you today?” The blend of voices is slightly different from the familiar sound of one voice and the sounds have no human source. A majority of infants become alert and stare at the small object on their right side that is the source of the sound. About 15 percent display a facial frown and seconds later cry. This distress reaction to a harmless event implies that the infant has acquired a strong association between the sound of human voices close by and the perception of one or more persons talking. The violation of this expectation evokes the crying. Long before children develop a a fear of snakes or spiders they are biologically prepared to become distressed by unexpected events they cannot relate to what they know. Psychologists have awarded too much power to fear of physical harm and not enough to the anxiety evoked by an inability to understand why things are the way they are.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Contemporary Americans are faced with a host of events that did not exist for their grandparents. These include the loss of secure manufacturing jobs, the erosion of quality in urban public schools, women in positions of power, increasing acceptance of homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, divorce, drug use, high levels of income inequality, and reliance on digital devices. Adults who find one or more of these changes troubling are vulnerable to assign blame to one of these changes as a serious threat to their understanding of how society ought to be.

 One reason why the rate of posttraumatic stress disorder among soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is higher than it was among soldiers who served in the second world war is that many of the former group, born after 1990, were socialized by family and the media to be tolerant toward and respectful of the beliefs and dignity of all humans. As a result, killing an innocent civilian in Iraq or Afghanistan is a more serious violation of the soldier’s ethical code than it was for an American who killed German or Japanese civilians in the 1940s.

Simply knowing when an electric shock, or any aversive event, will occur reduces the subjective evaluation of its unpleasantness. It is necessary to distinguish between the state induced by an unexpected event, on the one hand, and the state created when individuals recognize they have more than one alternative response and are unsure over the one to implement. The former state, called event uncertainty, is characterized by vigilance and the question, “What is that?” The latter state, called response uncertainty, is penetrated with worry over the consequences of choosing the wrong response and the implicit question, “What should I do?” Each state is accompanied by a distinct pattern of brain reactions.

 Many events psychologists call rewards are unexpected experiences that are not threats. This principle has implications for the therapies used to cure mental illnesses. All new therapies, whether a medicine or a form of psychotherapy, possess some unfamiliar features. Patients who understand the rationale for the novel ritual are biased to evaluate the therapy as effective before any evidence has been gathered or even if the therapy is a placebo.

This sequence occurred for psychoanalysis when it was introduced to Americans and Europeans during the last century. The requirements to lie on a couch, not look at the therapist, and free associate were unfamiliar rituals whose purpose was understood. Hence, patients awarded this new form of therapy special curative powers for about 50 years until the rituals lost their novelty. Once a majority of Americans became familiar with psychoanalysis it lost some of its power to persuade patients that they were being treated with a procedure that had unique healing properties or persuade the psychoanalysts that they were practitioners of a powerful cure for mental anguish. The Chinese did not welcome psychoanalysis because they were unaccustomed to sharing personal matters with strangers. Contemporary Chinese are far more receptive to this therapy and psychoanalysis is becoming popular among wealthy Chinese because of its novel rituals, despite no evidence demonstrating its superiority over other forms of psychotherapy.

 Some contemporary patients who are attracted to the novel rituals of breathing exercises report remission of their symptoms because they expected this activity to work and imagined themselves in a less distressed state. These anticipations have the potential to activate the brain sites that create a pleasant feeling. As long as patients maintain the optimistic hope that their therapy will help them they are likely to report feeling better because the expectation of relief from distress typically activates the brain’s opioid or cannabinoid systems which mute unpleasant states. That is why placebo sugar pills can be as effective as a medicine or psychotherapy among patients reporting mild forms of anxiety or depression, as long as they believe that the therapy is likely to be effective.

 Most individuals live in a narrow corridor bordered on the right by the boredom of close to perfect predictability and on the left by the fear of unscheduled unpredictability. Humans invent rituals to lower the probability of an unexpected intrusion and to carve the unmarked future into familiar sections. A feeling of vitality typically oscillates in a narrow space between moderate certainty and moderate uncertainty.

This process helps to explain the special form of pleasure that accompanies the learning of a new fact, say, the age of the universe. Three-year-olds are eager to know the names of things and often smile when they recognize an event that initially evoked uncertainty. A mother told me of a pair of incidents that captures the unpleasantness of not knowing and the satisfaction that follows the loss of uncertainty. Her two year old son put some freshly ironed clothes in a toilet bowl. When the mother discovered this scene she lost her temper and struck the boy harshly. Several days later the boy repeated the same action, but this time he went to his mother, let her know what he had done, and assumed the posture appropriate for a punishment. Why did the boy do this? One answer is that he did not understand the reason for the initial punishment and needed to find out if it was true that putting ironed clothes in the toilet bowl was the cause of his punishment. His second action was an attempt to resolve that puzzle. He never again displayed that behavior.

These observations help us understand why learning a new fact can evoke a brief, pleasant feeling. It is not clear whether the desire for knowledge is a biologically prepared urge or a motive acquired through the repeated reductions of uncertainty by new knowledge. In either case, uncertainty and its reduction are seminal human states. I am not sure that all knowledge sets one free, but I am certain that it possesses a power to satisfy. Perhaps that is why many  Americans who learn that the government spent 18 billion dollars in 2013 to remove some of the mystery of the universe are not troubled by knowing that these moneys could have been used to repair bridges, help schools, or give more generous aid to the poor. 

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Spark

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?