Want to be smarter? Read Kafka

September 16th, 2009 - 2:46 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 16 (IANS) Reading a book by Franz Kafka, or watching a film by director David Lynch, could make you smarter, a new study suggests.
Exposure to surrealism in, say, Kafka’s “The Country Doctor” or Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions, say researchers from the universities of California-Santa Barbara (UC-SB) and British Columbia (UBC).

“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,” said Travis Proulx, study co-author.

“And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat.”

Fire, for example, is associated with extreme heat, and putting your hand in a flame and finding it icy cold would constitute a threat to that meaning. “It would be very disturbing to you because it wouldn’t make sense,” he said.

Proulx and Steven J. Heine, professor of psychology at the UBC and study co-author, asked a group to read an abridged and slightly edited version of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor,” which involves a nonsensical — and in some ways 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 subjects 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 individual 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.”

In a second study, the same results were evident among people who were led to feel alienated about themselves as they considered how their past actions were often contradictory.

“You get the same pattern of effects whether you’re reading Kafka or experiencing a breakdown in your sense of identity,” Proulx explained.

These findings appeared in the September issue of Psychological Science.

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