Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The uses of poppycock.

In today's Science Times Benedict Carey reports on a series of studies about total nonsense.
The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. When those patterns break down - as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky - the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense...The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.
Experimentally this was investigated by Drs. Travis Proulx at University of California and Steven J. Heine at University of British Columbia by exposing subjects to either an absurd short story or to a more conventional one. Following this exposure, the students studied strings of letters with no apparent relationship to one another. Those students exposed to the absurd story remembered the letter strings far more accurately than the group that read the other story. The experimenters attribute that accuracy to their ability to create new patterns. Here's a link to the study.

Artists have used this technique for years. Courting a sense of disorientation can often be better fuel for creative explosion than a technique or rehearsal process that proceeds logically through steps of increasing knowledge and order. I'd love to do a variation on the reported study. It might be meaningful to find two varying situations for the same story rather than test two different stories, that is, create or identify one group for whom the story or some other stimulus is absurd and another for whom it is not and test their memory accuracy. A religious stimulus could be interesting - there are people for whom certain patterns of information or iconography possess serious meaning but which non-believers find to be absurd nonsense. How would these groups perform on the memory test if exposed to the exact same stimuli? This makes me want to run out and read Jabberwocky rather than an article on sub-cortical brain systems involved in visual perception in order to prepare for this morning's test.

1 comment:

Smriti said...

I recently came across Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. We all have them at some level but at varying degrees. Reading your article makes me wonder whether the development of these can me stimulated by the environment in which one lives in, rather than simple reliance on DNA. Does that make sense?
And I hope the test went well !