How Surrealism Makes You Smarter

on September 17, 2009

A story that went up yesterday at Science Daily caught my eye because it relates to the next post I’ll be putting up — but it’s also pretty cool in itself.

It seems that according to a new study, exposure to things that don’t make sense actually enhances overall cognitive functioning, because it kicks the brain into working harder to find structure and meaning.

According to researcher Travis Proulx, “The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat –– something that fundamentally does not make sense –– your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment. And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat.”

Proulx and another researcher had one group of subjects read a slightly condensed version of a Kafka story which presented a nonsensical and nightmarish series of events, while another group read a version which had been heavily edited so that it made more sense.

Both groups were then given a test that involved finding hidden patterns in letter-strings — and the group which had read the surreal version was able to identify more patterns and with a higher level of accuracy.

In a second study, people who had been made aware of contradictions in their own behavior also did better on the test. “You get the same pattern of effects whether you’re reading Kafka or experiencing a breakdown in your sense of identity,” Proulx explained

I’m going to have to think about this one a bit more before I comment on it, but I expect I’ll be referring back to it fairly often. It seems to explain an awful lot about human behavior — from the most impressive feats of creative innovation to run-of-the-mill batshit crazy.


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