Nonsense: Could It Be Good For The Brain?

November 5, 2009 at 3:39 pm 1 comment

Seeing Eye Glasses: Image by krits on Stock.Xchng Our brains are wired to recognize patterns. We see them in faces, in written words, in numbers.  The patterns we learn  become part of our neural network, literally wiring them into our brain, and from there, they help interpret the world around us, and guide our reactions to what we observe.

But sometimes, our experiences just don’t fit those known patterns.   We might run across, say, a kangaroo hopping down Elm street, or a boat perched up in a tree – things that just don’t fit our knowledge of how the world is arranged.  Our response is usually to feel uncomfortable and disoriented; sometimes we laugh, sometimes we feel fear, and our response can range from mild to extreme. .

Why is it so uncomfortable? Researchers behind a new study suggest that that uncomfortable response to the unexpected may serve a valuable purpose…. and that  our need to escape those feelings makes us look harder for patterns, priming our brain to recognize them even below the level of our conscious awareness.

In one of their experiments, the researchers (Dr’s Proulx, of the University of California, and Dr. Heine, of the University of British Columbia) had 20 students read a surreal short story that followed almost no expectations of what a story should be, and it included unrelated, and bizarre illustrations.  20 different students read a more comprehensible tale, with a traditional narrative style, and included relevant illustrations.

Immediately afterward reading the stories, the students were given a test commonly used to measure unconscious or “implicit” learning, the sort of knowledge we absorb without being aware of it.

Both groups of students  were given apparently random strings of letters to study.  There was a trick to the test, though — the strings were not entirely random, but had nearly unrecognizable patterns in them, as cues.    Later on, the students were given another set of strings, and asked to pick out those they had seen on the previous list.   The idea behind the test is that the better someone is at unconsciously picking out those hidden patterns in the first set, the more of the strings they will recognize in the second set.

And the result? The students who had read the “nonsensical” tale believed they recognized 30% more of the strings than the students who had read the more logical story.  Maybe more importantly, they were about twice as accurate!

By asking the student’s to read the nonsensical story, they were forced into that uncomfortable, disoriented state, and their brains went into a heightened mode of searching for patterns, in an attempt to make sense out of it all.  When presented with the seemingly nonsensical list of letters, their brains applied that same heightened state to the patterns in the letters, and the students recognized them on an unconscious level.

Could this be used to stimulate people’s brains under more ordinary learning circumstances, like school or work?  The research is still in very early stages, so it’s too soon to say for sure.

It’s also too soon to draw conclusions about what this might mean in terms of senior brain fitness, or memory loss (and the studies haven’t even begun to address that possibility).  But there could be a connection: recognizing new patterns stimulates the brain and creates new neural connections, which in turn  may contribute to a cognitive reserve, which can potentially reduce and/or delay age-related symptoms of memory loss, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia.  That’s a lot of “mays” and “potentials” but it’s still a strong possibility.

So go ahead and check out that gallery full of Salvador Dali’s paintings, read some Kafka, watch a David Lynch film.  The less sense it makes, the more stimulating it might just be to certain functions in your brain!


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Entry filed under: Be Mentally Active. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Brain Training Advocate  |  November 6, 2009 at 7:02 am

    This seems to be one of those scientific findings that concurs with common sense. We would expect our brains to try to work harder to find meaning in something, even though it seemed absurd. This is what we do on our way to a solution.

    Very cool!


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A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
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