Got Nonsense?

Jeremy Sharp, PhDneuroscience, research Leave a Comment

I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from various New York publications lately, and I’ll continue that trend today with another article from the NYT (thanks, Andrew).

Doug Allen made a comment the other day that I think provides a nice intro for talking about this article:

I often wonder if the mind is not stimulated enough like the puppy, it will create problems to solve.

The author of this article, Benedict Carey, talks about the role of “nonsense,” or unorthodox happenings, in stimulating the mind. I’d come up with my own examples, but he lists some great ones (a bearded nun, a pink unicorn, and a three-dollar bill are among those named). He cites research which suggests that the brain, when confronted with out-of-the-ordinary stimuli (or nonsense), will react by intensifying its efforts to find patterns in future stimuli (another example of the brain being smart). The example given in the paper is one of university students who, after reading a bizarre Franz Kafka story, did better at picking out subtle number strings than peers who didn’t read the bizarre story.

This is intriguing in so many ways. The article mentions implications for learning, particularly implicit learning, or “knowledge gained without awareness.” But I’m more interested, of course, in how this may come into play in a psycho-social way.

I can see  the positives here. On the one hand, it seems like having some good old nonsense in your life – say, by watching or reading the occasional piece of absurdity – could possibly make you sharper in your everyday life. Maybe help you deal more creatively with that problem that’s been bugging you at work, or give you a slight edge in responding differently when confronted with a familiar and troublesome relationship issue. I like this idea.

But I could see it being a slippery slope as well. While the article doesn’t say this, I could see any number of traumatic events (sexual assault, car crash, death of a close family member) qualifying as “absurd” in the brain’s eye. In other words, something totally unexpected that is difficult or impossible to make sense of. Following this event, the brain’s search for patterns or meaning actually finds patterns where none exist. The article mentions this possibility as well – individuals becoming susceptible to conspiracy theories and the like. But I’m thinking more of my clients who experience unexpected life events and then find “meaning” in others’ behavior or in the world around them, often in a detrimental way. I’m thinking of those who say things like “no one knows what to say to me,” “everyone’s judging me,” etc. These individuals can end up isolated, alone, and/or just plain anxious.

This is where therapy can be helpful – a place to process these reactions and do some reality testing of the “patterns” that are being seen. A good therapist can help you identify when you’re sharper than usual or when you may be searching for meaning in all the wrong places.

Thanks for reading 🙂 Comments or thoughts are always welcome.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.