Smarten up with surrealism

By Rebecca Knight

This just in from the department of…Who knew?

Reading a book by Franz Kafka or watching a movie by director David Lynch just might make you smarter.

According to researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia, exposure to the surrealism in, say, Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions.

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,” says Travis Proulx, one of the study’s co-authors.

Meaning, according to Proulx, is an expected association within your environment. Ice, for example, is associated with extreme cold, and putting your hand on an icicle and finding it fiery hot would constitute a threat to that meaning. “It would be very disturbing to you because it wouldn’t make sense,” he says.

In the study, the results of which appear in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science, researchers asked a group of people to read an abridged edited version of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor,” which involves a nonsensical, disturbing series of events. A second group read a different version of the same short story, one that had been rewritten so that the plot and literary elements made sense.

The participants were then asked to complete an artificial-grammar learning task in which they were exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings. They were asked to copy the discrete letter strings and then to put a mark next to those that followed a similar pattern.

“People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letter strings –  clearly they were motivated to find structure,” said Proulx. “But what’s more important is that they were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story. They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did.”

It remains to be seen whether or not reading surreal literature would help in the learning of studied material as well. In other words, curling up with a Kafka story before exam time probably wouldn’t boost your performance on a test.

“What is critical here is that our participants were not expecting to encounter this bizarre story,” says Proulx. “If you expect that you’ll encounter something strange or out of the ordinary, you won’t experience the same sense of alienation. You may be disturbed by it, but you won’t show the same learning ability. The key to our study is that our participants were surprised by the series of unexpected events, and they had no way to make sense of them. Hence, they strived to make sense of something else.”

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Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog: www.margaretmccartney.com/blog

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