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Take It From A 'Surprisologist', Your Life Could Use Some Sprinkles

Our richest memories contain an element of surprise. A perfectly predictable life is one we start forgetting even as it's happening.
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Hispanic couple sharing ice cream cone outdoors
Hispanic couple sharing ice cream cone outdoors

Everyone in the car was annoyed. We were visiting my husband's dad in Texas, gifting him a new TV while we were there. But at that moment we were headed 30 minutes out of our way to the nearest big-box store because the TV was missing a cable. We all griped at no one in particular.

"Why wouldn't they include the cable?" asked Brian, my husband. "I liked my old TV better," Dad complained. "How is it that there is no vegetarian food in San Antonio?" I asked.

Suddenly, the car came to a screeching stop. Brian, who was driving, had slammed on the brakes to avoid a dog in the road. Everyone in the car exhaled, and, after a beat, we were driving again. The store was just ahead, waiting. A few moments passed.

Then, Brian: "Should I turn back?"

I held my breath. We could keep driving. That was the plan, after all. When we climbed into the car, that was the expectation. But now the universe was throwing a curveball into those plans.

Brian: "I'm going to turn around, okay?" Dad: "You're crazy." Me: "Yes. Do it. Please."

What now? Would we see a dead dog on the highway? Or worse -- a dying dog? And if we found it unharmed, then what? Our thoughts filed the thick silence as we drove. "There!" Dad said.

I don't remember getting out of the car, but there I was, baiting this dirty, terrified creature with a sprinkle cookie we had in the car. I wondered, would she leap back into traffic and get hit? Would she attack me?

***

Reflecting back on this moment -- which lasted an hour but felt like a splash of time -- my brain was soaked in surprise. I've researched surprise psychology for seven years, and yet I still rarely recognize it in the moment.

That's because surprise sends a P300 wave through our brains that rips our attention away from ourselves and staples it firmly onto the world around us. It makes us wildly curious. It intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent, according to research by neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz. It makes the rest of the world melt away. The TV cable, the annoyances, the plans -- they were all gone. An event doesn't have to be shocking to trigger surprise -- it only needs to be unknown or unexpected.

We humans have an odd relationship with surprise. We research, we plan, we live by spectacular spreadsheets, all to prevent surprise. But then we look at our predictable worlds and sigh that heavy sigh that says, Something is missing.

We are stuck in what I call a prediction paradox -- we seek to fill all the gaps in our knowledge, plans and possessions, yet the more we fill ourselves, the emptier we feel.

That's because filling our lives and fulfilling our selves are different. Joy springs from possibility. Delight draws from the unanticipated. Playfulness builds from the unplanned. Wonder comes from not knowing. Awe is the result of not understanding. Growth comes from the moments in which we have enough courage to know when we're wrong.

"An event doesn't have to be shocking to trigger surprise -- it only needs to be unknown or unexpected."

When Brian was little, he believed that there was an alternate universe he could only see in his peripheral vision, and I think he was onto something. You choose from two universes: one you know, and one you don't.

That alternative might be a path, a person, an invitation, a dare or an idea you let take up brain space, even though it doesn't quite fit. Or sometimes, one universe is a spare cable waiting inside a store, and the other is a dog reaching for a sprinkle cookie in your outstretched hand.

***

Today Brian and I have a wonderful little dog who sleeps between us every night. She has a knack for making strangers stop and grin. She reminds me every day to walk with her in new directions, to talk to strangers (because sometimes they have treats or a story to share), to invent new games, to try new foods, and (most importantly) to innovate new positions for napping and cuddling.

Our richest memories contain an element of surprise. A perfectly predictable life is one we start forgetting even as it's happening. Not every moment has to be a mystery, and not every drive has to turn into an adventure. But every now and then we need a dose of surprise to add color, texture and flavor to our existence. Kind of like a sprinkle cookie.

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