The Power of the Unexpected

In Therapy, Both Ritual and Novelty Matter

Jerome Kagan
Magazine Issue
May/June 2016
An illustration of a man running into a question mark

The brain is always prepared for the event that’s likely to materialize in the next moment. Most of the time the expected outcome occurs. On the infrequent occasions when predictions fail—say, a light doesn’t turn on when the switch is flipped—a number of connected brain sites immediately release a cocktail of molecules that enhance a state of alertness and award the unexpected event a salience that renders it more memorable. Some events can activate a brain that’s not in a conscious state. The brains of sleeping newborns, for example, respond when the sound of a bell occurs after a series of identical tones because the bell sound is unexpected.

The detailed features of unexpected events that evoke strong feelings—for example, seeing a plane strike the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—are remembered for many years. A team of scientists led by William Hirst studied the preservation of the schemata and thoughts that many Americans formed that day. Although less salient features were lost during the succeeding years, most adults retained remarkably accurate memories of where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, and other details about the falling buildings for as long as 10 years. These faithful representations are called “flashbulb” memories.

Unexpected events that aren’t understood evoke a state of uncertainty in infants long before snakes or spiders generate a similar state. Four-month-olds don’t expect to hear a blend of recorded female voices speaking sentences such as “Hello, baby, how are you today?” without a human present. The alert infants stare with a puzzled facial expression at the small speaker that is the source of the sounds. A few cry. The inability to relate an unexpected event to what one knows—that is, to understand it—is a more frequent cause of fear or anxiety in children than the anticipation of being physically harmed. Perhaps that’s why the words who, what, when, and why appear in a child’s vocabulary by the fourth birthday.

Young children may require exposure to some unexpected events in order to learn how to respond to these experiences. A sizeable number of children who had spent most of their first year lying in a crib in a depriving Romanian orphanage, where they’d experienced few surprises, failed to show the appropriate caution as 5-year-olds living with a foster family when a stranger knocked on the door and asked them to go with her in order to receive a gift. Family-reared children were less likely to be as trusting of a stranger who made a similar request.

Many rewarding events are unexpected experiences. Animals will learn a new motor response if it’s followed by an unexpected, nonaversive change in what they see, hear, feel, or taste. A monkey in a barren room learns to strike a lever if that action is followed by a five-second peek at unfamiliar objects outside the room. Neuroscientists are discovering what commentators on human nature have known for a long time: the desirability of many experiences is enhanced when they’re surprises. Unexpected praise from a parent for a high grade is more effective in strengthening a child’s motivation than anticipated praise.

Secretion of the molecule dopamine in response to an unexpected event is occasionally accompanied by a pleasant feeling. As humans age, they lose some of the neurons that secrete dopamine. Seventy-year-olds are less motivated than 20-year-olds to visit a new place, meet a new person, or view a novel artistic production because the intensity of the pleasure is diluted. Not surprisingly, children and adults vary in their attraction to new experiences, partly because they vary in the genes responsible for a larger or a smaller surge of dopamine.

The adjectives unexpected and novel are not synonyms. Adults expect to see novel events when visiting an unfamiliar part of the world, and a familiar event is unexpected if it occurs at an unfamiliar time or in an unfamiliar location. Examples include a telephone ringing at 3:00 a.m. and a man on a bus brushing his teeth. It’s impossible to list the features that define unexpected events because these properties always depend on the person’s accumulated knowledge and the setting in which the event occurs. Americans are no longer surprised by television scenes showing bombs destroying homes, large refugee camps, or volcanoes erupting.

The Need to Understand

An unexpected event automatically evokes an attempt to understand its origin and to assign it to a category. When both questions are answered, which happens most of the time, brain and mind return to whatever they were doing before the intrusion. When either answer isn’t forthcoming, a state of uncertainty may pierce consciousness. Most gray-haired scholars brooding on the characteristics that render humans unique nominated a symbolic language and a moral sense. Few suggested that a need to understand is a third, equally significant property. Psychologists have awarded too much power to the anticipation of physical harm and not enough to the unpleasant feeling that accompanies an inability to understand why things are the way they are.

Feelings toward a parent, spouse, or friend can change dramatically when their actions violate expectations. Arthur Miller captured this phenomenon in Death of a Salesman when Biff discovers the father he’d idealized in a hotel room with a prostitute. Couples who believe that a happy marriage ought to be free of serious quarrels are susceptible to a bout of anger or sadness when the expectation of continuous harmony is disconfirmed. Couples in arranged marriages are protected from these disappointments because they didn’t hold this unrealistic conception of the marital experience.

The brain and psychological states created by an unexpected event, called event uncertainty, are not identical to the states evoked by an unsureness over the best action to implement when alternatives exist, called response uncertainty. Event uncertainty is accompanied by vigilance and the implicit question “What is that?” Response uncertainty is accompanied by concern over choosing the wrong response and the question “What should I do?”

The Benevolent Properties of Rituals

Status hierarchies in monkey troops reduce response uncertainty by limiting each member’s range of behaviors toward every other member in the troop. The fall of the Roman Empire made the new Christian religion attractive to many members of the empire because adoption of its beliefs and rituals muted the response uncertainty created by the absence of the order the government had provided. Humans spend their days in a narrow corridor bordered on the right by the boredom of near-perfect predictability and on the left by a fear of total unpredictability.

Participation in unfamiliar rituals that the individual expects to be benevolent is accompanied by a surge of opioids that creates a feeling many describe as relaxed. This process helps to explain why the magic rituals of shamans, which consist of unfamiliar actions performed with familiar objects, are infused with power. A popular ritual in ancient Egypt required the shaman to drown a falcon in a bowl of milk taken from a brown cow, wrap the dead falcon in a cloth free of dye, and place the cloth next to fingernails and strands of human hair.

All successful psychotherapies possess some unexpected features. Those who believe in the curative power of the therapy are more likely to evaluate its unfamiliar rituals as helpful. Psychoanalysis, which was introduced to Americans and Europeans early in the last century, required patients to lie on a couch, not look at the therapist, and free-associate. This therapy had a measure of curative power for patients who believed that these unusual actions would relieve their distress. Psychoanalysis had a measure of success for about 50 years, until the rituals lost their novelty and patients were no longer persuaded that this therapy possessed unique healing properties. Some psychoanalysts, too, became less convinced that they were practitioners of a powerful cure. The Chinese had not been receptive to psychoanalysis when it was popular elsewhere because they were unaccustomed to sharing personal matters with strangers. Contemporary Chinese who are friendlier to Freud’s ideas and can afford the cost are making appointments with psychoanalysts because of the therapy’s novel features.

Many American and European psychotherapists practice cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, with anxious or depressed patients. The rituals of CBT include exposure to the objects or situations that evoke anxiety. For example, the therapist often accompanies a patient who is afraid of flying on several flights. As this therapy approaches its fiftieth anniversary it, too, is beginning to lose its earlier effectiveness for the same reason that psychoanalysis lost much of its curative power.

Patients who practice rituals that are novel, such as yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises, report remission of their symptoms because they expected these activities to be helpful. Some depressed patients who spent time on a farm reported feeling happier. So did older adults in a residence home who constructed a simulated garden. Many patients who receive a combination of psychotherapy and a drug feel slightly better than those receiving only one of these treatments because the former assume that two forms of therapy ought to be more effective than one.

The tens of thousands of 19th-century Europeans who visited the shrine at Lourdes believed the visit would cure their illness. Even Jean-Martin Charcot, the renowned director of the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris who insisted that all cases of hysteria were due to a brain abnormality, acknowledged in 1892, a year before he died, that faith cures were possible. Patients who have minimal confidence in their therapy, or hold unrealistically high expectations of a rapid cure, are usually disappointed. Investigators at the University of Cologne found that Parkinson’s patients who held excessively high expectations of the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation reported little improvement, despite objective evidence of improved functioning. Dour perfectionists who expect to be disappointed usually confirm their own prophecy. When hope of improvement is absent, the power of most therapies dissolves as quickly as the sister of the witch of the East when Dorothy doused her with water. Indeed, if a medicine proven to be effective with an illness is administered to patients without their knowledge, there’s a smaller reduction in symptoms.

No form of psychotherapy has proven to be clearly superior to any other when patients are evaluated five years after they began treatment. The relation between the therapist and patient makes a far more important contribution to remission of symptoms than the specific rituals the therapist follows. Although no therapy can help all patients, there’s probably one therapy that will help some patients. No lover can arouse romantic feelings in everyone, but there’s probably at least one partner for every eager lover.

Effectiveness of Interventions

Many intervention projects designed to help children or youths acquire more adaptive traits usually compare those who received the intervention with a control group that didn’t. If the former improve, investigators conclude that the intervention was effective. They rarely entertain the possibility that the improvement is due to the fact that the participants expected to be helped. This expectation was missing among the members of the control group.Many interventions designed to change the child-rearing practices of mothers with less than a high school education fail because most of these parents had little faith either in their ability to change their children or in the intervention ritual. A person, group, or society has to be psychologically prepared for and motivated to take advantage of a therapeutic experience. This fact explains the minimal improvement in the academic achievement of African American children from poor families living in Newark, New Jersey, despite the introduction of large amounts of money into the city’s public school system.

A readiness for change or a lack thereof applies to nations. European leaders assumed the rules they imposed on many nations of the European Union would be welcome because they promised to bring greater prosperity to all. However, European voters rejected that premise, electing a large number of representatives to the European Parliament in May 2014 who were opposed to many of these rules. Unlike an ointment applied to the skin to reduce itching, attempts to alter human beliefs, values, or behaviors are unlikely to be successful if the client isn’t favorably disposed to the recommended ideas or practices. A cartoon in the New Yorker shows a monarch butterfly, posing as a psychotherapist, telling a caterpillar patient lying on a couch, “The thing is, you have to really want to change.”

Scientists at Stanford University developed virtual reality goggles that allow young adults to see their face morph into the visage of a 65-year-old ready to retire. The hope is that this novel experience will motivate the youths to save money for their retirement years. It’s too early to know whether this ritual will have the expected effect. I suspect that once a majority of youths know the purpose of the goggles, its advantages will disappear. It’s far too easy to spin optimistic narratives for new machines, medicines, curricula, or inventions.

Evaluations of Self

Unexpected events are, by definition, deviations from some norm. When the norm is a person’s understanding of his or her physical and psychological properties, a serious deviation can evoke an unpleasant state. Most 20-year-olds have a reasonably accurate idea of where they rank with their peers with respect to popularity, wealth, abilities, attractiveness, and status. A deviation from that understanding creates both event and response uncertainty. A scientist who was always in the top five percent of her class from kindergarten through her PhD degree will feel threatened at age 45 if she has unexpectedly fallen to a much lower rank. An adult who was always in the bottom half of his class from elementary school through college and doesn’t understand why, at age 40, he’s richer and more respected than his peers may feel his success is undeserved.

The brain and mind accept a modest amount of deviation from the usual because these events are most likely to be understood. When a deviant event passes a tipping point, individuals have a choice of three strategies: maintain their older understanding and ignore the event, acknowledge the event and mount a protection against its implications, or acknowledge the deviation and recalibrate their understanding. Younger adults usually take the third path; older ones prefer the first two. I was in my late 50’s when cell phones became as regular a part of one’s costume as socks and shoes. I rarely take my cell phone when I leave home, and I have neither a Facebook nor Twitter account. As a result, I see the potential problems that trail the addiction to iPhones. My 24-year-old granddaughter sees only the advantages and pleasures.

History is replete with deviations from a population’s expectations that assume the form of wars, civil unrest, natural catastrophes, pandemics, new machines, and novel ideologies. The French Revolution stripped nobles of their privileges; the First World War destroyed the illusion of progress; the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan turned Americans against war. The future contains the possibility of coastal cities underwater, new viruses causing pandemics, hacking of government and bank computers, and radical groups bombing cities. Those who ruminate on the possibility of these events experience changes in brain and body that prepare them for an exaggerated reaction to the smaller deviations scattered throughout a typical week. A feeling of vitality oscillates in a narrow space of moderate uncertainty. When this state is replaced by either perfect certainty or chronic uncertainty, boredom or vigilance replaces vitality.

Why Support Basic Research?

Public support for basic scientific research whose results have no immediate practical advantages requires a society in which a majority of citizens enjoy a moment of pleasure when they learn a novel scientific fact. The United States has many bridges, schools, tunnels, and highways in need of repair, more than 17 million Americans who go to bed hungry, and a government debt that exceeds $18 trillion. Yet the federal government will probably spend about $20 billion in 2015 on research whose main purpose is to add to our knowledge of the universe. Although the facts that will be learned have no obvious effects on the daily lives of most Americans, a majority approve of public support of this research because they extract some delight from the discoveries. Youths trailed Socrates as he wandered around Athens, and 16th-century Europeans paid money to sit in a large hall listening to a scholar read from a text on ethics, theology, mathematics, or philosophy.

What are the bases of the pleasure that accompanies the learning of a new fact? I’m excluding the scientists who made the discoveries. Their pleasure is easy to understand. Uncovering a new fact is inherently pleasing and occasionally brings a promotion, a prize, or celebrity. I’m also excluding the money spent on research on human illness because everyone is concerned with improving health.

Why did I feel a moment of pleasure upon learning that the earth is 4.5 billion years old? I had a similar feeling when a new fact implied an unwanted event in the distant future. The moon has been slowly receding from the earth since it first formed. Scientists believe there will come a time in the very distant future when the moon will be so far from our planet its gravitational force will be too weak to prevent the earth from wobbling in its orbit. Despite the potentially catastrophic consequences for our climate, I confess to more pleasure in knowing this fact than increased worry over the future wobbling of our planet.

Two explanations of an addiction to knowledge seem reasonable. The popular account claims that the learning of a new fact, like mastering a new skill, is inherently pleasant. Three-year-olds are eager to know the names of things and often smile when their pointing at an unfamiliar object is followed by a parent supplying a name. The same smile is occasionally seen on the faces of students in a large lecture hall the moment they understand the point the speaker is trying to make. This smile reflects the moment of understanding. Dissipation of the unpleasant state of “not knowing” is usually followed by a pleasant feeling.

A second explanation assumes that the pleasure of knowing rests on the many past occasions when the acquisition of a fact dispelled an unpleasant feeling. A 3-year-old who, while staring at a golf club, asks a parent, “What’s that?” is in a state of uncertainty. The mother’s answer, “That’s Mama’s new golf club,” dissolves the uncertainty and strengthens the state we call curiosity.

A child who broke a valuable glass ornament when no adult was in the room worries about the severity of the imminent punishment. When the punishment occurs, the worry is dissipated. A mother once told me of a pair of incidents that captures the unpleasantness of not knowing and the satisfaction that follows the loss of uncertainty. Her 2-year-old son put some freshly ironed clothes in the toilet bowl. When the mother discovered this, 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 immediately, let her know what he’d done, and assumed the posture appropriate for a punishment. Why did the boy do this? One answer is that he didn’t understand the reason for the initial punishment and needed to find out if putting ironed clothes in the toilet bowl had been the cause. His second action was an attempt to find the answer and, having found it, he never again displayed this behavior.

A 48-year-old woman consulted a psychiatrist because her failure to understand why she felt like a man was causing her great distress. When the psychiatrist, who had her genome analyzed, told her she’d been born with an abnormality in the sex chromosomes she felt much better, simply because she’d learned the reason for her feelings. A large number of adolescent boys who feel tense and uncertain with girls because of their childhood experiences, rather than an inherited biology, stop dating because the encounter is too distressing. In time, a proportion of these young men lose interest in heterosexual romance and begin to wonder why they feel this way. Contemporary society provides an answer—they’re gay. Once they accept this fact, they feel relieved and may initiate sexual relationships with other males to affirm their newly discovered category.

It’s not clear whether the desire for knowledge is a biologically prepared urge or a motive acquired through the past reductions of uncertainty by new facts. In either case, uncertainty and its reduction are seminal processes in both narratives. I’m less certain today than I was 40 years ago that all knowledge sets humans free. But I’m more certain that knowing emerges as a desirable state during childhood and retains its power to satisfy indefinitely. The psychological state that follows reading that the universe has billions of galaxies or that newborn infants react to human voices in a special way can compete with the pragmatic advantage of repairing our bridges, schools, and highways.



Excerpted with permission from On Being Human: Why Mind Matters by Jerome Kagan, published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2016 by Jerome Kagan.


Illustration © Kiki Tikiriki/