Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect

For real:

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.

When those [logical] 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.
Interesting. Perhaps I should start a Facebook account or watch the next American Idol since it might improve my intellect.

Seriously, this research seems like a humanistic application of chaos theory. Chaos theory posits that randomness is merely an illusion; that what appears to be chaotic or nonsensical is actually deterministic and sensible. Psychologically, it seems natural to try and make order out of disorder, or sense from nonsense, but it's nice to know those brain exercises might increase our intelligence in the process.

I suppose the true test of the theory would be measuring the intelligence of the population as a whole today and compare it with, say, before the advent of the internet and wireless technology. Since we are bombarded by nonsense 24/7, we should be getting smarter as a species.

One can hope, anyway.

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