Last week the New York Times reported a recent study on brain function published in the journal Psychological Science. This study, conducted by Travis Proulx from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven J. Heine from University of British Columbia, sought to examine how the brain responds to unusual, surprising, or disturbing experiences – the kind of experiences that would provoke sensations of shock, fear, or unease.
According to the New York Times,
Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.
Proulx and Heine’s research suggests that the brain functions, in part, by turning disorder and danger into order and normalcy.
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. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.
What’s interesting about this study was the mechanism that Proulx and Heine employed to test their theories. If you want to replicate, in a controlled environment, the experience of being destabilized, disturbed, shaken out of your sense of normalcy and complacency, where do you turn? To literature, of course.
Proulx and Heine’s study consisted of having college students read a particularly strange and challenging story, Franz Kafka’s “The Country Doctor.”
After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.
The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.
But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.
In other words, as Proulx and Heine concluded, the experience of reading Kafka’s absurdist story had primed the student’s brains to make intuitive connections that would re-establish order to their worlds. (The researchers themselves wrote the “control story,” which they describe as a conventional version of Kafka’s story. Both stories are available online at:
Proulx and Heine’s findings will come as no surprise to students and teachers of literature, or to passionate readers and writers more generally. We have all had the experience of reading something that caught us completely by surprise, stirred us up, or awakened us to new ideas. But, I must quibble with two aspects of this study, based purely upon my own experience:
1) I disagree with the idea that it is only the “absurd” that would have this effect. Sometimes it does require works like Kafka’s or those by other modernist and post-modernist writers, to test our sense of the norms of literature and life. But, I am confident, it is not only these works that cause the reading brain to re-orient itself, to look for new patterns and meanings that were not visible before.
2) I also question the researchers’ conclusion that exposure to surprising, terrifying experiences inevitably causes us to recoil into a position of self-defense in which we “cling to [our] personal biases more tightly.” Rather, it seems equally probable (and, again, true to my own experience) that the reader would find something appealing or seductive about that which shocks and challenges. How else, I wonder, would we continue to develop new literatures, new forms of artistic expression, new identities, lifestyles, and politics, if we only retreated to the known when confronted with the unknown?
So, embrace the absurd, read something new, and watch those neural pathways grow.
— Desiree Henderson