Behavioral, Physiological, and Neural Signatures of Surprise during Naturalistic Sports Viewing

James W. Antony, Thomas H. Hartshorne, Ken Pomeroy, Todd M. Gureckis, Uri Hasson, Samuel D. McDougle, Kenneth A. Norman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Surprise signals a discrepancy between past and current beliefs. It is theorized to be linked to affective experiences, the creation of particularly resilient memories, and segmentation of the flow of experience into discrete perceived events. However, the ability to precisely measure naturalistic surprise has remained elusive. We used advanced basketball analytics to derive a quantitative measure of surprise and characterized its behavioral, physiological, and neural correlates in human subjects observing basketball games. We found that surprise was associated with segmentation of ongoing experiences, as reflected by subjectively perceived event boundaries and shifts in neocortical patterns underlying belief states. Interestingly, these effects differed by whether surprising moments contradicted or bolstered current predominant beliefs. Surprise also positively correlated with pupil dilation, activation in subcortical regions associated with dopamine, game enjoyment, and long-term memory. These investigations support key predictions from event segmentation theory and extend theoretical conceptualizations of surprise to real-world contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)377-390.e7
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 20 2021


  • dopamine
  • event perception
  • fMRI
  • memory
  • naturalistic stimuli
  • prediction error
  • pupil dilation
  • reinforcement learning
  • sports psychology
  • surprise

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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