The Light Gleams an Instant, Then It’s Night Once More

My question on this particular Monday night is as follows: How does one get to be the person, or sit on the committee, that comes up with the topics for these surveys all over the internet? You know the kind I'm talking about: "Studies show young children who are read to on a regular basis do better in school as they get older." For reals? This makes me think I'm in the wrong business.

Every so often, though, someone takes on some research that I can get behind. According to Miller-McCune, Travis Proulx of UC Santa Barbara and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia have published a study in Psychological Science claiming that people's general problem-solving abilities can be enhanced by reading absurdist literature:

In the first of two experiments, 40 participants (all Canadian college undergraduates) read one of two versions of a Franz Kafka story, The Country Doctor. In the first version, which was only slightly modified from the original, "the narrative gradually breaks down and ends abruptly after a series of non sequiturs," the researchers write. "We also included a series of bizarre illustrations that were unrelated to the story."

The second version contained extensive revisions to the original. The non sequiturs were removed, and a "conventional narrative" was added, along with relevant illustrations.

The group that had spent their session making sense of the more disjointed writing, unsurprisingly, did better on pattern-finding tests. And again, when they were asked to take time and muse on the theory "that they had two different selves inhabiting the same body" (a control self and an experimental self?) they were able to carry over the abstract thinking into unrelated tasks.


The idea of exercising the conceptual mind to enhance other kinds of mental connections is nothing new. That a couple of scientists chose to deck it out in the rags and robes of surrealist literature makes me very happy indeed.

To Proulx and Heine, these finds suggest we have an innate tendency to impose order upon our experiences and create what they call "meaning frameworks." Any threat to this process will "activate a meaning-maintenance motivation that may call upon any other available associations to restore a sense of meaning," they write.

See? I feel smarter already, because I don't understand a word of that.

(via @MZPR.)

The illustration is a mixed media piece by Mike Elko.


7 Comments to The Light Gleams an Instant, Then It’s Night Once More

  1. September 22, 2009 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand it either…but it gives me something to look up later.

  2. September 22, 2009 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    There was a Radio lab story this weekend that touches on our innate desire to find pattern. They talked about a woman who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and put on Dopamine…and took up gambling. Just slot machines. She reckons she lost about $300,000…lost her husband…only ate peanut butter because even buying bread would take money from the slots. Turns out, after some years of this, that it was the dopamine in the drug she was taking for Parkinson’s. Dopamine apparenlty helps us feel pleasure at finding patterns and the slots were just full of stimuli that makes one feel that there are patterns there…
    Anyway, it was a fascinating story. (They took her off the drug and within a week she was cured…had no more desire to play the slots.)
    So…watch out for patterns.

  3. September 22, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    “So…watch out for patterns.” — So sayeth the knitter!
    These pattern/meaning frameworks also help us find things like the Nun Bun and the Face on Mars.

  4. Margarita's Gravatar Margarita
    September 22, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Patterns indeed – Waiting for Godot is perfect for that, so is knitting and language study, in a different way. I studied a bit of that stuff mentioned in the study, and it still doesn’t make sense to me either, but as they say, chaos is just an order we don’t yet understand…

  5. Louisey's Gravatar Louisey
    September 23, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m always striving to restore a sense of meaning when my meaning frameworks feel threatened…seems like all day long…

  6. September 23, 2009 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    While on a quest for something else, I just learned the word for the ‘nun bun’ phenomenon — pareidolia! I feel sorry for the sad little turquoise alarm clock (scroll to the lower left). (@Wikipedia)

  7. Leah's Gravatar Leah
    September 25, 2009 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    American Express is using something like this in their latest ad campaign. They’re using objects to evoke a sad or smiley face. It’s brilliant.

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