Purple Elephants! If that statement was not what you expected, your brain likely triggered a chemical response that encouraged you to discover how elephants could be purple. A new study out of Johns Hopkins University found that children as young as 11 months will attempt to explore the methods of unexpected events.
The study demonstrated two unique aspects of learning. Through a series of experiments, the researchers found that children that had seen a magic trick prior to learning something new learned better than children who did not. Being surprised actually improved learning! Further, when children witnessed something unexpected, they sought the opportunity to learn why or how the outcome was possible.
So, how did they do it? Magic! Some of the children watched magic tricks. These magic tricks challenged what the infants might expect to happen. For example, a ball would look as if it went off a makeshift cliff and unexpectedly float in midair. Other children saw the ball do something that was expected, like watching it fall off the cliff.
Then, the experimenters looked at what the children did with the objects. The children's responses were very interesting. Children who had witnessed a magic trick, something that was not expected, tested the ball by picking it up and dropping it. Children who saw the ball drop, something they anticipated, did not explore the object in the same way. In other words, children who were surprised by the event were more interested in learning.
Brain imaging studies have supported this finding. Studies have shown that surprise triggers a response in the emotion center of the brain, and we know that highly emotional events are learned better. In addition, curiosity, a feeling that likely occurs after a surprise, increases brain activity in the areas of the brain associated with learning and memory. It's also been found that once someone is interested in any topic, learning and memory for unrelated topics is also improved.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the impact of surprise and curiosity on learning is the pathway in which they stimulate. When a child becomes interested in an event after feeling surprised or curious, or for other reasons, they get a rush of dopamine. Dopamine, the pleasure and reward chemical of the brain, produces a response similar to what a person would experience after taking morphine. Although I'm not suggesting we give any medications to our children, it's a fascinating fact that we can naturally stimulate our pleasure system with simple unexpected events.
So how can you improve your child's learning? Surprise them with a new activity! Instead of having lunch at the kitchen table, have a picnic and learn about plants and bugs or other fun topics. Get your child to see common objects or situations in a new way. You might take two bottles typically used for soda, fill them with water, tape them together and show your child a tornado! Use topics that intrigue your child to introduce new information or learn a skill. You could use dinosaurs to learn about size, writing a poem, or carnivores.
Whether it be purple elephants or magic tricks that might make you curious, the amount of learning your children will gain will definitely be surprising!