How does SURPRISE! Make You Stop What You Are Doing? Interview with:

Jan R. Wessel, Ph.D. Asst. Professor Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences Department of Neurology Iowa Neuroscience Institute University of Iowa

Dr. Wessel

Jan R. Wessel, Ph.D.
Asst. Professor
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Department of Neurology
Iowa Neuroscience Institute
University of Iowa What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? 

Response: We found that the occurence of unexpected events, such as sudden, surprising sounds lead to an automatic engagement of a well-known brain network for action-stopping, thereby leading to a suppression of ongoing motor activity. Specifically, we found that when participants had to stop an action, their ability to do so was significantly improved when the cue to stop was accompanied by a sudden, unexpected sound. This improvement was accompanied by an amplification of the brain activity that is related to action-stopping, and was also accompanied by an increase of suppression of excitability of the motor cortex. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Our report shows that unexpected events influence behavior in predictable ways – namely, by reflexively interrupting or inhibiting ongoing actions. We suppose that the reason for this automatic engagement of the brain’s action-stopping mechanism is that it is beneficial for survival to “err on the side of caution” when something unexpected happens in our environment, and to rapidly interrupt what one is currently doing – just in case the current action plan is no longer appropriate given the change in our environment. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: It is known that several clinical populations have difficulties in rapidly processing unexpected changes in the environment. For example, patients with Parkinson’s Disease have been shown to have trouble changing their ongoing behavior when the environment starts behaving in unpredictable ways. Future research could test whether this deficit could be explained by a malfunctioning “stopping-network” – if unexpected events cannot sufficiently activate the action-stopping network in the brain in this population, this may explain why these deficits occur in this population.


Isabella C. Dutra, Darcy A. Waller, Jan R. Wessel. Perceptual Surprise Improves Action Stopping by Nonselectively Suppressing Motor Activity via a Neural Mechanism for Motor Inhibition. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2018; 38 (6): 1482 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3091-17.2017 

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