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Are You a Fan of the Surreal? It May Make You Smarter

Franz Kafka, David Lynch, and Rene Magritte were my Kevin, Joe and Nick Jonas as a teenager. (Yeah, I was a weirdo.) So imagine my delight when I read a study that claims that surrealism may be good for the brain.

Research psychologists at UC Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia concluded that exposure to surrealist art, film or literature, because it puts you in worlds whose elements don't make sense, drives you to look for structure and sense elsewhere, hence raising "the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions." Want to hear the details of this study? Then


To reach this finding, they had two groups of people read Kafka. One group was given Kafka's story "The Country Doctor," which in typical Kafkaesque fashion, goes from normal to weird in no time at all. The other group was given a rewritten version so that nothing was odd about the plot or narrative. After they finished their respective Kafkas, they were asked to find patterns hidden in strings of letters. Those who read the original Kafka stories were both more motivated to find patterns and more accurate in their findings than those who read the normalized Kafka.

It's their second experiment that is almost more interesting to me — they divided groups between those who felt alienated by things they'd done in the past and those who didn't. "You get the same pattern of effects whether you're reading Kafka or experiencing a breakdown in your sense of identity," said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB and co-author of the article. "People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings. That feeling of discomfort may come from a surreal story, or from contemplating their own contradictory behaviors, but either way, people want to get rid of it. So they're motivated to learn new patterns."

So, basically, feeling alienated and consuming alienating art and literature drives you to make sense of things, giving your brain a workout. That would finally explain my motivation to find meaning in the world after watching The Hills, a surrealist masterpiece if I ever saw one!


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