Friday, October 09, 2009

How nonsense sharpens our intellect

Benedict Carey points to an article in Psychological Science that I scanned past without realizing its interest. Proulx and Heine show that a threat to our sense of coherence or meaning in one area (such as reading an absurd short story by Kafka) enhances our ability to unconsciously detect patterns within letter strings (an artificial grammar task). Encountering incoherence apparently primes our brains to detect patterns they might otherwise miss. The idea is that the brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. The process is enhanced by a threat to meaning. (It is also important to evaluate the possibility that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance.)

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