Regulating surprise to promote intellectual curiosity

  • intellectual curiosity and surprise

A recent study conducted at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences in France examined the neural and behavioral underpinnings of curiosity. The study looked at the interplay between intellectual curiosity, prior knowledge of a topic, and level of surprise.

The researchers found an inverse relationship between surprise and general epistemic curiosity.  That is, being surprised, it turns out, inadvertently dampens your motivation to find out other, new knowledge.

This new research provides insight into why you might be less motivated to seek out novel information after being challenged by something surprising. The problem is, learning something new will always come with some surprises. The question then becomes: How do you make sure that you stay consistently curious about everything, not just the thing that caught your attention?

One possible solution is to improve your psychological and physiological response to surprise so that your intellectual curiosity can be maintained for many different things.


Enhance intellectual curiosity by adapting to the unexpected

Being curious is a good thing. Being curious about a lot of things is even better. In order to enhance your performance in any area of expertise, it is essential that you stay broadly curious. By doing so you expose yourself to new problems in the pursuit of self-improvement. Research has shown that curiosity is a key player in enhancing learning.  And it’s diminution is known to be a symptom of depression.

limit surprise to help stay curious


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But there are times where you feel a lack of curiosity or motivation to seek out novel information. When, and why, does this happen? The current research reveals that the level of surprise you experience when coming across novel information seems to cripple your generic curiosity and willingness to seek out further novelty.  

The reason this happens is because surprise is an attentional distraction. It catches us off guard and draws our attention to the surprising stimulus, and nothing else. Recent research points to the idea that surprise triggers a negative reflexive emotionality as evidenced by increased activity of the corrugator (frowning) muscle. As a twinge of negative emotion, surprise starves us of additional attentional resources needed for the learning of other new knowledge.

To maintain your curiosity, you need to ensure that you’re responding positively to surprise as you go about learning new things. There are two ways to do this.

  • First: a quick-fix response where you learn to dampen the in-the-moment physiological symptoms of surprise.
  • Second: a more proactive approach encompassing a handful of desensitization techniques to help prevent surprise from catching you off guard down the road.


Quick fix: Dampen your physiological response in the moment

Psychologists have uncovered a set of key physiological correlates of surprise. At the level of neurobiology, surprise is similar to the startle or fear response. A most common physiological marker that accompanies these affective states is an increased heart rate.

Here, we take a James-Lange approach to emotions by capitalizing on the notion that your experience of emotions is derived from your interpretation of their corresponding bodily arousal. In this light, if you can learn to change your physiological reaction to a given stimulus, then you change your emotions (and the labels you attach to them).

Next time you become caught off guard or distracted by something novel, try implementing one of the following methods to help stave off the physiological symptoms of surprise.

cold water reduces heart rate


  • Splash yourself with cold water: By giving yourself a cold splash to the face, you help your body stimulate the dive reflex. Essentially, the cool water serves to slow your metabolism and your heart rate.
  • Practice the valsalva maneuver: This technique is normally used to diagnose problems with your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) but can also be utilized to instantly bring your heart rate back to a normal rate. Simply pinch your nose, close your mouth, try to exhale while both your mouth and nose are obstructed and clenching your abdomen. Hold this for approximately 10-15 seconds and repeat until you feel your heart rate return to a normal rate.
  • Massage your neck: Otherwise known as the carotid method. By gently massaging the side of your neck, you can stimulate the vagus nerve which can help to slow your heart rate.


Proactive approach: Habituate to surprise for long-term

As a more proactive measure, you can also get better at responding to surprising information by exposing yourself to novel stimuli in the environment. It works by placing yourself in an uncomfortable and new situation in order to desensitize yourself to surprise. Ironically, you want to habituate to the response so that the state of surprise is, well, less surprising. Here are some examples you can try.

habituate to surprise to aid


  • Go to a bookstore: Due to the social media algorithms curated for us by technology, it is highly unlikely for you to come across any content that is new or surprising to you. Taking a stroll through your local bookstore can increase the chances that you’ll come across something that’ll take you by surprise.
  • Get physically uncomfortable: As mentioned above, with surprise comes a number of physiological correlates such as sweaty palms and increased heart rate. One way to desensitize your response to surprise is by incrementally emulating its physical symptoms. For example, start small by decreasing the temperature in the shower a couple notches every day. Do this until you’ve reached the coldest temperature possible.
  • Change your environment: Most of us are accustomed to our routine, and we don’t venture too far out of our physical and psychological comfort zone. An easy way to surprise yourself is by taking an alternate route to work. You can take this a step further and dedicate an entire day to exploring a new neighborhood in your city.
  • Seek the boring: Often times, what you think to be boring is only boring because you haven’t spent enough time learning or thinking about it. Learning more about something you find inherently boring is a super easy (and unassuming) way to surprise yourself at how interesting it actually is. Try this: pick any household item- be it a spoon or a microwave- and Google it. You will be astonished at how much there is to uncover about seemingly mundane and ordinary things.


The Study: How surprise influences intellectual curiosity

The study consisted of a two-part trivia quiz conducted inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. In the first part of the quiz, participants were asked to rate their curiosity for 60 cinema-related questions. In order to manipulate uncertainty, the answer to the question was either revealed or replaced with an arbitrary symbol (in this case, a hashtag).

In the second part of the quiz, the same questions were presented, but this time the participants were asked to indicate whether they could spontaneously remember the answer by selecting either a light-bulb (remember) or a cloud (forgotten) icon. In this part, all questions were followed by their corresponding answers. This part of the quiz was designed to uncover the neural correlates of surprise since half the answers had previously been revealed while the other half could still invoke genuine surprise.

Once the participants exited the scanner, they were presented with an unsuspected memory test which asked them to write down all of the answers they could remember. Finally, all corresponding questions and answers were shown and the participants were asked to rate how surprised they were at each question/answer pairing on a scale of 1-5 ( 1= not surprised at all and 5=very surprised). Furthermore, they were also asked to indicate the 30 items they were most curious about.

The authors found that curiosity, surprise, prior knowledge, and repetition were all associated with memory recall. While surprise was positively correlated with specifically oriented curiosity, it was negatively correlated with general nonspecific curiosity. They also uncovered the ventral striatum as a neural correlate of intellectual curiosity, a region in the brain responsible for reward and motivation.

Another interpretation of these findings is that surprise blunts our intellectual curiosity for new content (generic nonspecific stimuli) because it puts all our attentional resources onto the thing that made us surprised in the first place (specific stimuli). The inadvertent effect of surprise can therefore limit the extent to which you are receptive to new incoming information.


Recap on how to regulate surprise for intellectual curiosity

The study’s findings shed light on a unique and complex relationship between curiosity and surprise. When we become surprised by something, it makes us more curious about it (specific curiosity). While this can be good in terms of keeping us on task for that specific thing, it can be detrimental to our motivation to seek out novelty and explore fresh perspectives (general epistemic curiosity). More often than not, you perform better when you stay curious about lots of different things.

By using methods to slow your heart rate, you can help regulate your physical response to surprise. Furthermore, you can desensitize your response to surprising or shocking stimuli by implementing easy ways to increase your exposure to novelty. By regulating your reaction to surprise, you’re likely to promote a more keen curiosity for new and potentially useful knowledge.