The Power of Surprise In Cultivating Creativity

The Neuroscience behind our beliefs and how they influence creativity

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Are you creative? If you believe you are, how did that belief develop?

Maybe it happened incrementally with parents and teachers lauding your efforts and commenting on your brilliant creative efforts. Perhaps your belief erupted suddenly from an unexpected comment.

Sorting this out may surprise you. As a researcher of formative moments, these spontaneous eruptions can be quite revealing.

Take, for example, what graduate student Rylie shared about her love for writing fantasies.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher often assigned creative and fun projects. I remember clearly that we once had to write a small book and present it to the class.

I wrote mine about a boy who turned into a dragon slowly after being adopted by dragons. The concept was okay, but the execution was terrible. And oh my, did I ever get mocked for it by my classmates! They all hated it, and a couple laughed at me for it.

Later that day, my teacher pulled me aside and told me she thought the idea was creative. She told me that even if no one else liked my writing, she thought it was great.

Since that day, I wrote countless stories about fantastical characters and also improved my writing skills. I hope that one day I can positively influence a child like this.

Rylie began by feeling sorry for herself, filled with self-doubt. The teacher’s comment abruptly changed her mindset because it surprised her.

Surprise comments produce exponential influence. Think of it as reinforcement on steroids. The element of surprise is a belief-revision reflex. She reversed her emotions from embarrassed to proud.

Basic Understanding:

When we label a behavior as objective reality, it acquires value. We tend to accept those labels because matter-of-fact comments sound like observations with verifiable truth, similar to “You are wearing a red hat.” The act of noticing, then labeling a behavior is akin to reinforcing it.

Advanced Neuroscientific Understanding:

Labeling a behavior during a surprise not only reinforces it, but this new label also etches itself into long-term memory. A new belief emerges.

Here’s how it works.

An intense surprise produces a two-phase burst of dopamine. That’s our motivator neurotransmitter, the one that urges us to approach this (higher levels) or avoid that (lower levels).

Phase One, lasting less than a second, is what psychologists call salience. Your brain shrieks, “Something important is happening, so pay attention.”

Phase Two is the longer-lasting valence. Your brain assesses, “Is this good or bad? Should I approach or avoid?” This second phase initiates the formation of a belief. In Rylie’s case, “I’m creative.”

The process occurs as if in secret, outside our usual awareness.

After the teacher’s surprising comment, Rylie now views subsequent writing as imaginative because she now interprets it through the lens of “I’m creative.” She sees examples of her creativity everywhere.

It’s always good to give supportive comments, but it’s a game-changer when you do it with a surprise. Learning to use surprise strategically relies upon the wonders of science mixed with the art of timing and delivery.

It may be praiseworthy to comment about someone thinking creatively while that person is thinking creatively, but it won’t be surprising.

However, if you see someone showing signs of concentration, you might say, “Your ability to think deeply helps you come up with creative solutions.” That comment, if surprising, may spur a confident approach to divergent thinking.

It’s your turn to wield this powerful influence tool.

When a brilliant teacher, coach, supervisor, or parent sees someone stressed over a performance, it’s the perfect time to counter that anguish with a surprising positive comment, delivered with conviction.

Children don’t know they have an attribute until someone names it. If you name it during a surprise, you might trigger an instant belief.

Name a presumed weakness as an asset.

When an attribute someone considers a weakness becomes described as a strength, the unexpected perspective inevitably stirs a surprise response.

My colleague Sarah told me she used to worry that her inability to focus on tasks at work would eventually lead to her downfall. That is until her director commented one day that her “ability to let her mind wander gave her a creative edge.”

She now expresses her innovative ideas proudly. The reframing of an inability to focus to the ability to let her mind wander changed its valence from negative to positive. That’s what a surprise can do.

Important note: State your positive comments as self-evident. Praise can sound phony or manipulative, while declarative statements carry conviction.

Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.

Do you have stories of surprise moments you’d like to share? Send them to




The Teachers on Fire Magazine features articles written by agents of growth and transformative change in K-12 education today. If you write about education, reach out to @TeachersOnFire to become a writer for this publication. Writers keep full ownership of content.

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Michael Rousell, PhD

Michael Rousell, PhD

Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.

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