October 06, 2009

Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect, says the Times

All this and not a word about koans:

In addition to assorted bad breaks and pleasant surprises, opportunities and insults, life serves up the occasional pink unicorn. The three-dollar bill; the nun with a beard; the sentence, to borrow from the Lewis Carroll poem, that gyres and gimbles in the wabe.

An experience, in short, that violates all logic and expectation. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that such anomalies produced a profound “sensation of the absurd,” and he wasn’t the only one who took them seriously. Freud, in an essay called “The Uncanny,” traced the sensation to a fear of death, of castration or of “something that ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”

At best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy.

Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss—in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large.

[Image: Alexander Hafemann]

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Michael Repucci's picture

Actually, the original scientific article is slightly flawed, and the NY Times author did not pick up on this. According to the primary research, "nonsense" increases the attempts to find meaning or patterns in subsequent tasks, but there is NO SUPPORT for the claim that after a "nonsense" task one is any better at actually finding meaning in these patterns.

In short, what the original authors did is presented two different groups with two different tasks; one group (the control group) did a "meaningful" task, while the other group (the experimental group) performed a "nonsense" task. Both groups had previously viewed a set of "words" (character sequences) from a fabricated language, and after their respective task, were asked to indicated how many character sequences in a new list appeared to belong to the fabricated language. In truth 50% of the words did belong. Subjects in the experimental group selected significantly more words as belonging than did subjects in the control group, and naturally selected more of the correct words. But approximately half of these additional selected words would be EXPECTED to be correct words. The flaw lies in the fact that the authors did not examine whether the subjects in the experimental group selected a significantly greater PROPORTION of the correct words than subjects in the control group. Only this information would allow one to make the conclusion that "nonsense sharpens the intellect". Otherwise it may simple be that nonsense increases risk-taking, or raises self-doubt.

no spam thanks's picture

Surely there is nothing very surprising about this. Not that it is 'slop' or uninteresting.

A surprise of any kind will increase alertness. But a world with nothing but surprises ie no pattern, no predictability would be impossible to live, or just impossible.

Stephie V.'s picture

The Times piece's author, Benedict Carey, points to artists' use of the absurd and to the opening of the mind, while the study's interpreters seem stuck on ideas of nervousness and fear as motivators. I was going to trash the whole thing but now I think maybe Carey was striking a chord toward light, in the face of studies and their limits.

There lots of semi-articles about soft science that I think are just meant to draw in readers -- could call it "healthnews candy." Often contradictory and mushy, what makes me queasy is how much time we have to waste in getting to the bottom of these fluff balls.

But in this one the writer took the opportunity to turn the researchers' assumptions on their heads. (Flowerpot and all)



memory power blog's picture

most people might not recognize the truth behind this article but i do.Because i have seen non-sense stuff since my childhood because of one of my family member.as a result,i have been affected by severe panic attacks disorder and this had actually made me plunge in to knowing different things about the world - i started learning photographic memory,started reading everything i could.I do not know how to explain how i changed myself because of non-sense but i have proof for my increased performance in the form of grades i got since i was affected by panic.Would like to elaborate but could not since my finders are already aching :)

Jason's picture

Come to think of it, I have been noticing patterns in my math homework lately!

alan's picture

Pink unicorns and 3 dollar bills. That is about as deep as this slop gets--let's be thankful there was no mention of koans!

Rob Meurer's picture

I have been utterly fascinated by nonsense all my life. I suppose that tells me something...but what?

108zenbooks's picture

Oh No! Now my husband has validation for not cleaning up his desk!

Maybe this is why chanting syllable/sounds that have no linguistic meaning opens the heart/mind...?