The principle of surprise is a key element of TruScribe’s content creation style. It tells us that experiencing the unexpected has a rather specific effect in the brain. It causes the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes the brain to become, and remain, curious.
Of course, dopamine affects more than a person’s level of curiosity. It’s known as the “happy,” or “reward” neurotransmitter; it’s linked to addiction, motivation, and more. So how does dopamine work, and what does it make us do?
We know the Downsides of Dopamine
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Dopamine is a major factor in addiction. Interestingly it’s often more the system of dopamine release itself—not chemical dependency—that creates lasting addiction and, invariably, hardship.
“The past idea was that you need to ingest a drug that changes neurochemistry in the brain to get addicted, but we now know that just about anything we do alters the brain… it makes sense that some highly rewarding behaviors, like gambling, can cause dramatic changes, too,” explains Timothy Fong of UCLA.
Kevan Lee adds a dimension to the power of dopamine to drive brain activity (and behavior). He points out that “Dopamine performs its tasks before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act, either to achieve something good or avoid something bad.”
This is why gamblers get excited when they approach a table in a casino. Or the narcotic addict feels a rush of excitement even before using the drugs they’ve purchased. Their brains are filed with dopamine because, as Lee puts it, “your brain recognizes that something important is about to happen.”
But Dopamine has Benefits too
Let’s move the focus away from addiction and think about dopamine’s much healthier, more natural patterns in the brain. The anticipation that “something important is about to happen” is not limited to risky behaviors like those involved in addiction. The dopamine spike that accompanies this feeling can be triggered by an upcoming presentation, a meeting, or other significant events.
This how dopamine is an encouraging factor, not solely a reward one. Brains flooded with dopamine are motivated brains, encouraged to work towards the final reward, even before it’s immediately available.
With this in mind, the TruScribe focus on producing dopamine in viewers through the principle of surprise makes great sense. Dopamine isn’t purely a “reward” neurotransmitter – it is more related to promoting action towards rewards. So we can see how dopamine-related curiosity can create ongoing engagement with a message.
When the artist’s hand begins a drawing, the mind releases dopamine. That tells the brain to “Pay attention—this will be rewarding in the end”. Motivated to see that reward, the brain focuses on the drawing, and then relaxes when it is complete: reward. Then, the next drawing starts, and the brain releases more dopamine: “Last time, this was rewarding. Get focused—here comes another reward.”
What makes a reward worth it?
You might be thinking, “Okay, so dopamine works not so much by being the reward, but by recognizing the probability of a reward, and motivating us to seek that reward. What if that reward is insufficient—what if, in a sense, dopamine gets it wrong?”
It’s a great question to bring up. If there’s no reward, or the ‘reward’ is radically different than expected (to the point of being negligible, or even negative), the brain will slow or stop its production of dopamine. No motivation is needed to see that which won’t be rewarding. Or, in dopamine’s other function, to avoid that which doesn’t need to be avoided.
But let’s define ‘rewarding’ very clearly.
The brain considers information extremely rewarding, even if it’s not immediately useful. As an example, think of the last time you fell down a “Wikipedia rabbit hole.”
When you find yourself reading about a movie, and in a few clicks, you’re reading about the historical context of a play that the movie’s executive producer worked on in the 1980’s, ask yourself: how did I get here? Do I actually care about this? Maybe you don’t, in some objective sense, but your brain does. Information is enjoyable, and the brain puts a premium on it.
In fact, the brain “converts information into the same common scale as it does for money”. This is a game-changing truth. So, when the viewer sees a drawing start, it’s okay if the rewarding drawing they expected ends up looking different. They stay motivated, and dopamine continues to release because it’s still rewarding information. More dopamine quickly cues them to focus up for the next rewarding bit of information.
Our Brains are Naturally Information-Seeking
Yet, our “information-seeking behavior” can’t explain the curiosity we witness when newborns look longer at new visuals longer than familiar ones. We know their brains aren’t absorbing and categorizing information the same way our adult brains are. So why does dopamine make us curious and motivated, especially for information, even when we don’t yet (or might never) have use for that information?
In a word, biology. In a few more words, prehistorical humans with more information about their surroundings, relationships, safety, and so forth survived longer, and had a greater chance of reproduction. Knowing more meant a better shot at preparing for danger, finding a safe shelter, and securing food.
Curiosity, a motivating force that drives higher information retention, “recruits the same very brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation,” contends Lecia Bushak. It’s playing off the same reward-focused portion brain—those that dopamine’s presence stimulates—to create the same motivated, reward-anticipating, information-seeking engagement that external stimuli create.
When the brain sense something important is about to happen, and it releases dopamine to create the motivation to find the likely reward at the end of the activity—whether that activity is learning information, watching a drawing, eating, or more.
When your message is surprising, it generates curiosity, a kind of motivation that promotes engagement in your viewers and engenders higher levels of retention. Dopamine isn’t just the “happy” neurotransmitter—its functions and effects are far more interesting and complex.
Dopamine can drive a person to throw dice against the odds, consume a substance despite its health risks, seek out information, or turn both external and internal causes of curiosity and turn them into actionable, motivating elements.
Does a fuller understanding of dopamine’s functions give you any ideas for your next marketing effort? Do you already employ the principle of surprise? Do you think the tips in this discussion could help you drive up engagement with your messaging?