A new study has revealed that being exposed to surrealism can improve learning by compelling the brain to seek out structure.
Psychologists at UC Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia revealed that exposure to the surrealism in, say, Franz Kafka"s "The Country Doctor" or director David Lynch"s "Blue Velvet" enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions.
"The idea is that when you're exposed to a meaning threat -- something that fundamentally does not make sense-your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment," said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB and co-author of the article.
"And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat," Proulx added.
During the study, Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia asked that participants to read an abridged and slightly edited version of Kafka"s "The Country Doctor," which involves a nonsensical -- and in some ways disturbing-series of events.
And second group read a different version of the same short story, one that had been rewritten so that the plot and literary elements made sense.
The subjects were then put through an artificial-grammar learning task in which they were exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings.
They were asked to copy the individual letter strings and then to put a mark next to those that followed a similar pattern.
"People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letter strings -- clearly they were motivated to find structure," said Proulx.
"But what"s more important is that they were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story. They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did.
"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," the expert added.
The findings appear in journal Psychological Science.