A paper published recently in Psychological Science proposes that being disoriented makes the brain work harder and better. The two authors, Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine, claim that our brains have evolved in a way that we are able to make predictions, and one way we do that is by identifying patterns. We don’t like feeling uncomfortable; we don’t like what we don’t know.
The research expounds on what travel writers have always known: a feeling of disorientation inspires creative thinking. If something doesn’t make much sense, we do our best to make it make sense. Andy Warhol was a master at disorienting us, as were the Surrealists: Salvador Dali in particular. When we look at their art, we’re startled, and afterwards we see the world around us slightly differently. Apparently, this is a function of our brain as much as our art-loving heart: our brain is always eager to make sense of everything around us.
Heidegger explains this better than just about anyone I’ve read: a hammer is not a hammer when you describe what it looks like or how it feels; it is not a hammer without its purpose being described as well. Additionally, a hammer cannot have a purpose without someone there to put it to use. In other words, a hammer cannot exist in and of itself. Its purpose has to make sense to us in order for it to exist as the object we mean when we say “hammer.”
Without explaining the purpose of something, without making sense of it, it becomes nonsense.
For many of us, this is a ‘duh’ kind of thinking, I suppose. Every day we’re supposed to try to see the world as new. Juxtaposing something unusual into your daily routine freshens your mood, makes you alert and interested. That’s what happens when you travel or meet someone new. As teachers, we know that the best way to engage a student is to challenge them to think about something in a different way.
As part of their research, Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine asked twenty college students to read a short story by Franz Kafka, one of the masters of surreal ‘Kafkaesque’ story-telling.
From the N.Y. Times: “After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others. The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing. But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.”
The study suggests that ‘nonsense’ motivates our brain to try to figure out logical patterns it would otherwise miss, not just in language, but in math and in aural or visual experiences as well. Whether this is because the brain works harder to make sense of the nonsense, or for some other reason, remains to be seen.
Fun Writing Practice – Nonsense Makes Us Smarter
Write a short story using fifty percent nonsense words, but so that the mood feels coherent. Write it so that it’s absolutely believable – meaning grammar, punctuation, etc, is accurate. Remember Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’? “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves” makes perfect sense to us, even though the words themselves can’t be translated.
- frost on the ground
- the warmth of the Caribbean Sea
- good deeds
- using mirrors to make a room bigger and brighter
- strength of purpose
- lying under a coconut tree on a warm sunny beach
- down comforters