Sweet surprise

One of the best parts of Christmas are the presents. Yes, the worship, the carols, the giving, the lights and the family time fill us with peace on earth and goodwill, etc., but the gifts are an excellent seasonal perk. Getting a bunch of new stuff in and of itself arouses pleasure centers in the brain, but the element of surprise that underpins the countdown to Christmas morning cranks up how our brains experience that pleasure. In fact, surprise intensifies our emotions 400%! (1)


Human beings love surprises, when they are good ones. Researchers at Emory University and Baylor College squirted juice and water alternatively into the mouths of 25 subjects and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to evaluate the brain’s responses. One group received the juice and water at regular and predictable intervals; in the other, the squirt of juice or water came as a random surprise. Those in the random groups had markedly higher continuous spikes in dopamine levels than those in the predictable group, where the levels started high then declined over time. The surprise was the key to those spikes of pleasure. (2)

There are more benefits of surprise — it triggers curiosity, excitement and wonder, which in turn help us learn. It even has been shown to help depression, as it interrupts harmful rumination patterns. (1)

Something sweet

Lest you fall over in surprise that Team Better is encouraging a sweet treat, we did run this by Jen, our nutrition writer. She and the CDC agree that occasional sweets can be part of a healthy diet. (3) So, your sweet surprise can be something with added sugar. Or go naturally sweet and buy some fruit, like plump raspberries, fresh blueberries or a cut mango. Eating sweet things also activates our brain’s reward system and releases dopamine into the brain, so giving a sweet surprise will double down on your friend’s happiness! (4)

And if you are a think-outside-the-box kind of gal, go ahead and write a sweet note, give a sweet compliment or do something sweet for someone. The best sweet surprise I got this week was a note of gratitude from my teenager, which I may bronze for those times she doesn’t think I am the best mom in town.

A sweet surprise for the giver

Research shows that connecting to others is an important part of our health and wellbeing. Those with quality social relationships are better at sticking with preventative health measures like exercise, healthy diet and keeping to medical regimens. Social connections influence physiological outcomes like lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and decreased stress hormones. Social support both gives us a comforting feeling of being loved and cared for and also grants a sense of personal control over our life outcomes. (5)

Neuroscientists have shown that our brains are wired to connect. In fact, when a friend is threatened, our brains behave in the same way as if we ourselves were under threat. In one study, shocks were administered to participants in order to study this phenomenon. Parts of the brain responsible for threat response activated nearly identically when the subject or the subject’s friend was shocked, but did not respond significantly when a stranger to the subject received a shock. (6) Close connections become part of our tribe — the group that helped us survive in the world of sabre-tooth tigers, but which keeps us emotionally and physically healthier in the information age.

Check out this article on mirror neurons and empathy


Read more about how surprise helps us learn


And more interesting stuff about surprise:



  1. Science explains why surprise brings us pleasure. Fusion website. April 4, 2015. Accessed Nov 9, 2016.
  2. Berns GS, McClure SM, Pagnoni G, Montague PR. Predictability modulates human brain response to reward. Journal of Neuroscience. 2001;21(8):2793-2798.
  3. Know your limit for added sugars. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed Nov 9, 2016.
  4. Dovey D. How does sugar affect your brain? Turns out in a very similar way to drugs and alcohol. Medical Daily website. Jul 25, 2014. Accessed Nov 9, 2016.
  5. Umberson D and Montez JK. Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. J Health Soc Behav. 2010;51(Suppl):S54-S66.
  6. DiSalvo D. Neuroscience research shows the human brain is wired to connect with others. Psychology Today website. Dec 15, 2014. Accessed Nov 9, 2016.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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