The Neuroscience of Surprise and How It Improves Learning


00;00;00;05 – 00;00;03;22


This is the ten minute teacher podcast with your host, Vicki Davis.

00;00;03;22 – 00;00;59:09

Vicki Davis

How does the power of surprise increase learning in our classroom? Well, a surprising article from Johns Hopkins called The Element of Surprise Helps Babies Learn Significantly Better points to a trend that we will talk about in our classrooms of all ages.

So if you’ll go with me for just a minute as we talk about the babies now, if you’ve played peekaboo with a baby, you know that the surprise is what makes them laugh. Well, researchers found that once the babies saw something that surprised them, their engagement with the object peaked and their learning behavior improved significantly as compared to a baby who was not surprised. So they found that babies who were shown surprising events were able to learn faster and more efficiently afterward than those who were not. Yes, we can apply this to our classroom, and today’s researcher will help us understand how does the power of surprise improve learning? Episode 774.

Show Sponsor –

00;00;59;02 – 00;01;18;00

Vicki Davis – 

Today’s sponsor is, an award-winning digital learning tool that will transform your lessons into active, collaborative learning experiences. To learn about Lumio and how to sign up for FREE, head to to LUM.IO today.


Introduction of Michael Rousell, PhD

00;01;18;13 – 00;01;41;00

Vicki Davis

Dr. Michael Rousell is our guest today as we talk about The Power of Surprise, his new book Now he has been on the show previously and we’ll link to it in the show notes about the surprising science of life changing moments.

But tell me a little bit about the power of surprise. Why the book and how did you discover that surprise is so important?


How Michael Rousell Started Studying Surprise

00;01;41;00 – 00;03;09;03

Dr. Michael Rousell

Well, when I was teaching back in middle school, I used to work with these students.

I thought, Wow, you know, they just had a mindset. If they could just find a way to get encouraged because we knew they have got the aptitude, they’ve got the ability, but they give up too easily or they just don’t push their way through it.

And then they have other students who just have that great mindset and then they would just go right through it, you know, starting to think the difference between the two is a simple little belief. And of course, Carol Dweck did all her work since then, 20-25 years later and says, You know what?

That difference is, that’s a growth mindset. And I thought it was related to hypnosis, so I actually did my PhD in hypnosis thinking, Oh, you know what? What’s the best way to change somebody’s beliefs so they believe in themselves?

So I actually studied hypnosis and did a lot of hypnosis for about 20 years. I wanted to study “What is it about hypnosis? What is it creates this suggestibility, that moment where you actually believe something that you didn’t believe before?”

And I thought because when I was doing hypnosis, my friends would ask me, “What if you hypnotized somebody and they didn’t know it?” Or “What if you hypnotized somebody and they never came out of it?” And I thought, you know, those are two good questions to do a PhD on.

So that’s what I did my work on. And the name of my dissertation is hypnotic conditions in the classroom.


00;03;09;03 – 00;03;18;05

Vicki Davis

And so. So you go through the hypnosis and then you say, OK, well, maybe it’s not that. How did you how did you pivot?


Why Surprise is Important in Learning

00;03;18;14 – 00;05;00;28

Dr. Michael Rousell

Well, you can’t just run around hypnotizing students to think, you know, I think that that’s going to work the way I did. I used to hypnotize a lot of students with their parents’ permission, and they say “this is great gift to take out the garbage, I’m fine with that.”

But they would take out the garbage. I say I’m not throwing anything in there. I’m studying all these formative events and these moments study susceptibility. When are people most suggestible? And I found out that they’re really suggestible when they have a high emotional arousal, you know, when they’re alarmed or when they’re confused.

But if this extreme emotional arousal and that was what I wrote in my first book, how extreme emotional arousal opened up a window of influence. So I did that book about 15 years ago, and so I kept on collecting stories about hundreds and hundreds of stories, some little calmer.

Some little moment changed how they felt about themselves. I began pouring over these stories. In about five or six years ago and pouring over these stories as you do when you do research, most of those stories were triggered by a surprise.

I better study surprise. And so I spent the last six years now studying exclusively neuroscience and the cognitive science of surprise and lo and behold, surprise. The whole point of surprise is to change your beliefs, right? A surprise is belief based.

If you don’t have a belief, you can’t be surprised. So, you know, for instance, if you look outside and you see a panda running across your lawn and you think, well, that’s going to cause a surprise if you believe that you live where there are any pandas.

So that causes surprise.


How does a K-12 Teacher Apply Surprise to Their Classroom?

00;05;00;28 – 00;05;13;02

Vicki Davis

How does the K-12 teacher apply this to their classroom? The principle of surprise?

00;05;13;02 – 00;06;20;27

Dr. Michael Rousell

Let me give you a really good example because I collect a lot of classroom stories.

I had always asked my graduate students, Do you have any surprise events in your past? I’m just going to use Laurie as an example. This is a middle school student. Laurie used to struggle with learning and our test taking. She would go really slowly, and she thought that was a sign of low intelligence. So she’s writing her test in the library, and as the test is progressing, all her friends get up when they’re finished and they’re leaving and she’s Derek’s. Get anxious, right? I’m going so slow that everybody’s smarter than me. You know, struggling. She’s anxious. The librarian walks by. She’s the only one left in the library and walks by and says, Well, kid, your thoroughness and attention is really a sign of grit. People who go slow do the best on tests. And she said, ever since that moment, she goes and she writes her tests slowly, methodically. But now she’s got this new mindset right instead of getting anxious. She writes it proudly because it’s a sign of grit and that one little moment, because it was a surprise, changed your mindset


Can Surprise Work to Teach in a Whole-Class Setting in K12?

00;06;21;23 – 00;06;34;22

Vicki Davis

. So we, as teachers, should look for those moments of truth that could surprise kids and have those conversations. Are you able to surprise kids as a group? Have you turned up in these stories about that?


00;06;34;22 – 00;07;28;23

Dr. Michael Rousell

I have stories of surprises as group, for instance.

It’s actually a pretty similar story. One student was struggling, going slowly and was pretty worried. Teacher said to the sixth grade class as they were kind of making fun of Joey because Joey was going slowly. The teachers said to everybody “Well, Joey, keep on going. People who go slowly usually do the best because they’re really careful and attentive.”

And she said after that, the whole class took the time and they never made fun of Joey anymore.

And this isn’t rocket science for teachers.

Teachers, we already know this. Now the difference is when you say something positive, that’s nice, and it’s encouraging for students if it surprises them neurologically. As a surprise, what happens is they get what’s called phase dopamine. And with phase dopamine basically is what just happened.

That’s what they call, you know, that’s what they call salience like, what was that? “You just blew my mind.”

00;07;28;23 – 00;07;31;00

Vicki Davis

“You just blew my mind.”


Why Surprise Is Important to Us as Human Beings?

00;07;31;00 – 00;08;02;21

Dr. Michael Rousell

You’re right. And so that’s what happens. And the reason that happens like that is from our past, the surprise showed imminent danger or immense opportunity.

So you better pay attention. And then the second part of surprise is to face learning instantly. Those who didn’t think about that tiger, the rustle in the bushes, they didn’t make it into the gene pool. So we have this predisposition to learn instantly during a surprise.

We don’t face the tigers anymore. But boy, the student, here’s something which does happen. And then the instant learning go slowly, confidently,


00;08;02;21 – 00;08;32;13

Vicki Davis

teachers. The power of surprise may be just what you need to really reach that student. How can you surprise them with a truth or surprise them by noticing them or surprise them in some other way

So Dr. Michael Rousell and the name of the book is the power of surprise. Thank you, Michael. 


Thank you to the Sponsor

A big thank you to our sponsor for this episode. If you’re looking for a collaborative learning tool to make it easy to level up your lesson materials you already have with assessments, game-based activities, collaborative spaces and lots more all in one place, Lumio is the perfect choice for you. Head to for more information and to sign up for FREE.

00;08;55;04 – 00;09;06;29


You’ve been listening to the ten minute Teacher podcast. If you like this program, you can find more at If you wish to see more content by Vicki Davis, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter under CoolCat Teacher.

Thank you for listening!


Source link