Thursday, January 14, 2010

886. Nonsense

I stumbled across this interesting article last week:

How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect

Exposure to uncanny, meaningless experiences strengthens our ability to recognize patterns and improves our ability to learn, suggest researchers:

"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."

The article recounts experiments where subjects read a weird story by Kafka and, immediately afterwards, were tested on their ability to find patterns in meaningless strings of letters. The Kafka group did much better than a control group who didn't hear the story.

I read this and immediately thought about my experience chanting Torah. When I first learned eight years ago, it essentially was nonsense; I understood very little. The words, attached to random melodies, were just sounds. But I soon discovered that the best time to practice was first thing in the morning; it was better than coffee at waking me up and getting me ready to face the work day. The creative puzzles of business and design always seemed a little easier, more fluid, when I tackled them right after chanting. Was it just that singing helped more oxygen than usual get to my brain? Who knows—but it makes sense that the task of navigating through gibberish would be like running your grey matter on a treadmill to gain strength and agility.

The best part of this article, however, was the correction note at the very end, dated a month after the story was published:

"The Mind column on Oct. 6, about the ability of nonsense to sharpen the mind, reported findings from a flawed statistical analysis. ... . After a reader questioned the analysis, the researchers repeated the experiment and found no significant difference between the groups. (A similar experiment reported in the same paper, in the journal Psychological Science, did hold up to re-analysis.)"

So the theory many not hold water at all. The article itself may be nonsense; maybe we're all part of the experiment to see if it's true ...


Laura said...

I like the theory, even if it doesn't hold up "scientifically"...who knows, maybe eventually the findings will be reversed and supported once again. Really interesting none the less. I'm in the process of helping my daughter practice reading Hebrew in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah this summer. And it mostly seems like gibberish for her, but then a familiar word will pop up and I love to see her face light up with recognition. My reading skills are ok, but my Hebrew comprehension is not great, but whenever I can translate something on the spot for her (even if it's just one or two words in a sentence) I do...trying to give meaning to the process for her.

alto artist said...

How exciting it must be to see your daughter learn, and be involved in the process--all it takes is one word, one discovered piece of the puzzle, to get us excited to continue and look for the next one.

Mazal Tov in advance!