Surprising thoughts: A natural source of creativity

April 7th, 2021

When was the last time you had a surprising thought? And when was the last time this happened at work? Did you know that your brain rewards you when you have a surprising thought?

There are different kinds of surprising thoughts. For example, there are thoughts that are not surprising in terms of content (because they are about something that you care about and that you often think about) but that come to mind at a surprising moment. When you are in the supermarket buying the vegetables for that evening, you suddenly wonder whether your son has handed in his homework assignment on time. We all know that feeling we experience when a thought catches us by surprise because it deviates from our expectation. However, the surprise, the feeling of spontaneity, that we experience is much stronger when we have a thought that is not only unexpected in terms of timing but also in terms of content. You are filing your tax return when out of the blue you have this idea about fly fishing, a hobby you engaged in years ago but haven’t thought about for years. Where does that thought suddenly come from? And why do you have that thought now? 

Most of the time, our thoughts are consistent with the things we are doing and the expectations that we have. If you are very skilled at your job, your perceptions and thoughts will usually fit well with your expectations. You will not be surprised very often; you will not often experience the feeling of spontaneity I mentioned before.

In a recently published study, researchers from the University of New Hampshire and the University of British Colombia theorized that surprising thoughts, especially those that are surprising in both timing and content, are very important to us. Curiosity, and seeking out new experiences and observations, are crucial for our ability to learn and for our development. This already starts during childhood. Several studies have found evidence that (the reward system of) our brain releases dopamine when we are curious and when we have new experiences. Dopamine makes us feel good. And it’s probably also the sudden release of dopamine that creates the feeling of spontaneity that we experience when we have a surprising thought. In the article, the researchers describe the theory that surprising thoughts are very important for improving and updating the system that is responsible for our expectations. And this is important for our learning abilities. In addition, the researchers also believe that surprising thoughts can help us free up mental space for content that we would otherwise ignore, for content that we wouldn’t expect. According to the researchers, we have the ability to learn from something new and surprising, even if it’s just a thought. 

There are strong indications that the emergence of surprising thoughts is an important natural property that contributes to our learning capacity. An important indication of this is the connection with our brain’s reward system. When we have surprising thoughts, when we are curious, or when we learn something new, our brains give off a reward (dopamine) and we feel good. 

How can organizations and teams make use of this natural property? This property that not only has a positive contribution to the personal well-being of employees, but also to the development of organizations. How can organizations and teams prevent talented people from only having thoughts that are in line with their expectations during their work? The ability to learn, a broad perspective, and opportunities for creativity, who wouldn’t want that? 

Google’s 20% time rule is a practical example of how possibilities can be created for surprising thoughts to further develop into innovations. This rule gives employees the opportunity to spend 20% of their working time on a topic or project of their choice. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, described this rule not only as an opportunity to initiate creative projects but also as a counterbalance against (unreasonable) managers. According to Schmidt, you can only create or reinvent something if management is suppressed. Consider that surprising thoughts can only be followed up if the focus on efficiency and optimization doesn’t get in the way. In our complex environment, curiosity, creativity, the ability to learn and a broad perspective are invaluable. Under the influence of, among other things, technological developments, our environment is constantly changing. That is why organizations are paying more and more attention to creativity and innovation. How does your organization or your team deal with surprising thoughts? Are these thoughts further explored? Are there sufficient possibilities, or can sufficient possibilities be created to further explore these thoughts? 

Consulted sources:

Out of the blue: Understanding abrupt and wayward transitions in thought using probability and predictive processing. Caitlin Mills, Andre Zamani, Rebecca White and Kalina Christoff. December 14, 2020. “The Royal Society Publishing”

Google’s 20 Percent Rule Actually Helps Employees Fight Back Against Unreasonable Managers Masters of scale. Andrea Huspeni. June 7, 2017. “” 
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