Neuroscientists are getting closer to understanding how we are surprised by unexpected events. Dharshan Kumaran and Eleanor Maguire at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London have found that the hippocampus “predicts” what will happen next by automatically recalling an entire sequence of events in response to a single cue.

Using an fMRI scanner, which uses changes in blood flow within the brain to provide measurements of brain activity, Dr Kumaran and Dr Maguire were able to show how the brain reacts to unexpected changes in a sequence of images. A subject is shown a series of four images which are then repeated in a different order. By changing the order of only the final two images, the researchers found that the hippocampus appeared to be predicting which image would come next and reacting when an unexpected image appeared.

“These experiments indicate that the hippocampus acts as a sort of comparison device, matching up past and present experience” says Dr Kumaran. “It does not appear to be reacting to novelty as such, but rather to discrepancies between what it expects to see and what it actually sees.”

(From Tales Of The Unexpected: How The Brain Detects Novelty)

Hippocampus Humor? One wonders if the hippocampus is the seat of humor in the brain. Most jokes we find funny work because the punch line surprises us – it deviates from what we expected, and it’s that contrast that makes us laugh. Not all humor follows that pattern, of course, but it’s certainly the model for many, many jokes.

I don’t think this research has profound neuromarketing implications, but it does underscore how an advertiser can get a reaction by doing something unexpected. If the viewer is presented with a familiar image or situation, his brain will automatically predict what will happen next. If the advertiser inserts an unexpected image or event, it’s likely to grab the viewer’s attention to a greater degree than had the predictable occurred. Advertising copywriters have for years used a similar technique to jar the reader out of complacency – once in a while, they substitute an unexpected word in a familiar phrase. For example, instead of “a stitch in time saves nine,” the writer might use the unexpected phrase, “a stitch in time saves money.” The unexpected word at the end of what was thought to be a familiar phrase gets the reader’s attention. I suspect the mechanism by which the brain makes this comparison is different than what the Wellcome researchers found for sequences of events, but the underlying principle isn’t all that different. The brain is constantly predicting and comparing, and providing it with something other than it predicted will cause a reaction.

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