Mike Rousell-SOU-Surprise-TEDx

Surprise! SOU’s Rousell discusses the brain, dopamine and change at TEDx

Mike Rousell, an associate professor of education at SOU, still remembers the surprise response he received from a teacher after complaining about his childhood dyslexia and learning difficulties. “Why don’t you become a teacher?” his instructor asked.

What that teacher may not have realized is that the unexpected comeback may have produced fertile ground in which the seeds of Rousell’s confidence as an academic and future educator could take root. Rousell has spent more than three decades as a psychologist and professor analyzing what he calls “surprise-driven formative events,” and offered a fast-paced, informative – and surprising – presentation at a TEDx Talks event held earlier this year in Salem and published recently on YouTube.

“Surprises to beliefs we hold about ourselves can be defining and formative,” he told the TEDx audience. “So now that you know what surprise-driven belief formation looks like, what does a surprise-driven formative event look like?

“Samantha used to think that her shyness was a weakness – that is, until one day when her swim coach named her captain of the swim team. He told the team, ‘She may be shy, but when she talks you’re going to want to listen.’ Since that surprise comment, she now feels quietly powerful.”

Rousell, who has taught full-time at SOU since 2008, was one of 11 speakers at the January TEDx event, the sixth in a Salem series. His 12-minute talk – “Surprise! How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs” – examined how the human brain is affected by surprise and the groundwork for reevaluation is laid.

He said that surprise produces a jolt of dopamine, a chemical that enables the transmission of signals among the brain’s nerve cells. He said it’s “essentially a neurological error signal” that to human ancestors signaled inherent danger or opportunity.

And Rousell portrayed strategic surprise as a “life hack” that can enrich others’ lives.

“If you’re a teacher and you have a student who is frozen with the fear of making mistakes, catch that student making a mistake,” he said. “They will be surprised, and they will expect criticism. Surprise that student instead and say, ‘Your eagerness to make your mistakes so willingly make you a strong learner.’

“If you surprised that student, they got a burst of dopamine and they have to make sense of that. So now when they make those inevitable mistakes, they get a little hit of dopamine … which says, ‘Fight on, because you’re a strong learner.’ And that is the signal feature of a growth mindset.”

Rousell received his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Alberta, and his master of education and doctorate from the University of Oregon. He taught elementary, middle and high school in Edmonton, Alberta, before accepting his position in the School of Education at SOU, and also has worked in private practice and school counseling as a certified psychologist.

He told the TEDx audience that humor is an effective tool in changing people’s beliefs, because of its frequent use of an element of surprise – and he offered an example. Rousell said that a consequence of his line of study is that he is often asked what has been the biggest surprise in his life.

“I was having a little disagreement with my wife and at the end of it she looked at me and she said, ‘you might be right,’” he said.