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How the brain responds to OMG! moments

Remember that popular YouTube clip that features an affable dude dancing into a street? He's dancing from side to side, as he backs his way into the middle of a neighborhood street -- and WHAM! An ice cream truck that seems to come out of nowhere crashes into him. He's OK -- he even got his "web redemption" on a recent "Tosh.0" episode-- but getting hit by a truck is what you might call a shock, both to him and to his eventual millions of YouTube viewers.

But watching situations that are jarring to us are no big deal to our brains, suggests a new study published in the February issue of the journal Cortex. The processes in our brain's orbitofrontal cortex (the brain's "decider") remain the same, no matter how unexpected or frightening an event may be, says lead author Armin Schnider of the University Hospitals of Geneva in Switzerland.

"The context of this research is the brain’s ability to remain in phase with ongoing reality while allowing thoughts (memories) to freely float," Schnider explains. But while brain patterns don't change if you're merely surprised, all bets are off if you're in actual danger and need to quickly react, not think about it, she says.

Schnider supervised a team of researchers, who recorded functional magnetic resonance images, or fMRI, while volunteers were repeatedly shown an image of a pair of faces. The participants were told to predict the face on which a "target" would appear -- either a simple black circle, or a freaky spider. Whether the spider or the circle showed up, a cerebral network that included the orbitofrontal cortex was activated.

Schnider agrees that his findings are comforting, in a way -- unexpected events may give us a jolt, but to our brains, it's business as usual.

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