26 October 2009

Making sense out of nonsense?

At last I have permission to talk nonsense! According to a study from psychologists at the University of British Columbia, reading nonsense books or surreal books that don’t follow a logical pattern boosts our learning.

New research suggests that exposure to bizarre, surreal storylines such as Kafka's "The Country Doctor" can improve learning. Apparently, when your brain is presented with total absurdity or nonsense, it will work extra hard to find structure elsewhere. In the study subjects took a test where they had to identify patterns in strings of letters in Kafta’s work. They performed much better than the control group. People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letters and were more accurate than those who read the more “normal” version of the story. They seemed to learn the pattern better than the other group.

In a second study, the results were similar among people who were felt alienated about themselves as they considered how their past actions were often contradictory. People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings. That feeling of discomfort may come from a surreal story, or from contemplating their own contradictory behaviours, but either way, people want to get rid of it. So they're motivated to learn new patterns and find some sort of meaning.

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