“Absurdist Fiction” Making Us Smarter?


Does absurdist literature make you smarter? Giraffe carpet cleaner, it does!

The befuddled tramps in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are a poetic personification of paralysis. But new research suggests the act of watching them actually does get us somewhere.

Absurdist literature, it appears, stimulates our brains.

That’s the conclusion of a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science. Psychologists Travis Proulx of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia report our ability to find patterns is stimulated when we are faced with the task of making sense of an absurd tale. What’s more, this heightened capability carries over to unrelated tasks.

In the first of two experiments, 40 participants (all Canadian college undergraduates) read one of two versions of a Franz Kafka story, The Country Doctor. In the first version, which was only slightly modified from the original, “the narrative gradually breaks down and ends abruptly after a series of non sequiturs,” the researchers write. “We also included a series of bizarre illustrations that were unrelated to the story.”

The second version contained extensive revisions to the original. The non sequiturs were removed, and a “conventional narrative” was added, along with relevant illustrations.

All participants were then shown a series of 45 strings of letters, which they were instructed to copy. They were informed that the strings, which consisted of six to nine letters, contained a strict but not easily decipherable pattern.

They were then introduced to a new set of letter strings, some of which followed the pattern and some of which did not. They were asked to mark which strings followed the pattern.

Those who had read the absurd story selected a higher number of strings as being consistent with the pattern. More importantly, they “demonstrated greater accuracy in identifying the genuinely pattern-congruent letter strings,” the researchers report. This suggests “the cognitive mechanisms responsible for implicitly learning statistical regularities” are enhanced when we struggle to find meaning in a fragmented narrative.

In a second study, participants were asked to recall situations in which they responded in very different ways, and instructed to consider the notion “that they had two different selves inhabiting the same body.” They, too, did better on the letter-pattern task than members of a control group. “The breakdown of expected associations that participants experienced when arguing against their own self-unity appeared to motivate them to seek out patterns of association in a novel environment,” the researchers write.

To Prolux and Heine, these finds suggest we have an innate tendency to impose order upon our experiences and create what they call “meaning frameworks.” Any threat to this process will “activate a meaning-maintenance motivation that may call upon any other available associations to restore a sense of meaning,” they write.

So it appears Viktor Frankl was right: Man is perpetually in search of meaning, and if a Kafkaesque work of literature seems strange on the surface, our brains amp up to dig deeper and discover its underlying design. Which, all things considered, is a hell of a lot better than waking up and discovering you’ve turned into a giant cockroach.

What an eccentrically designed study.  They didn’t read Kafka, they read altered Kafka (or kinda-Kafka);  AND WITH PICTURES!  Not sure what this proves, but it makes for a good headline.

26 Things That Don’t Make Sense

(via mefi.)

13 Here13 There.

They range from pretty neat to WTF, viz.:

The GEO600 gravitational wave detector in Hanover, Germany, has not yet detected any gravitational waves. As a consolation prize, it may instead have uncovered the ultimate nature of reality.

In 2008, physicist Craig Hogan at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, was trying to work out how we might test the idea that everything we see as physical reality is the result of a kind of projection from the boundary of the universe. This is known as the holographic principle.

The information held at the boundary is not smooth, but composed of “bits”, each one occupying an area that corresponds to the most fundamental quanta of distance in the universe. This is the Planck length, around 10-35 metres – far too small for us to see the individual bits. When this information is projected into the volume of the universe, however, each bit gets magnified. That means we might just be able to see pixellation in space-time.

The kinds of scales involved still mean it would only be detectable in the most sensitive instruments we have – such as the gravitational wave detectors looking for the ripples in space-time caused by violent cosmological events such as the collision of two black holes. Hogan worked out how the pixellation might manifest itself for GEO600 and sent his result to the researchers there.

By strange coincidence, the GEO600 team had been having problems with “noise” in their detectors. But here’s the kicker: the noise had uncannily similar characteristics as Hogan’s anticipated signal. Is it indeed the result of information that resides at the edge of the universe? “The issue is still unresolved,” says Karsten Danzmann, principal investigator for GEO600. “The noise is still there and we have no explanation.”

The answer may only come after the instrument is upgraded to make it even more sensitive, a step that is due to be completed this time next year.

regarding recent earthquakes

I cannot vouch for how accurate this guy is in comparison to other predictors, but i followed this amateur seismologist EQ Alert on Twitter a few weeks now, and he seems to be pretty good with his calls.

They are getting a lot of foreshocks around the Pacific Tectonic Plate. Honshu is due for Beulah resultant 7.6 and watch West Coast. EQ Guy

Even if there are better forecasters out there, i’m enjoying that someone is passionate enough about the subject to put his knowledge to the test.

Otherwise, Cosmic Variance has a nice post on the Los Angeles quake today.

an endless sequence of spin-off universes

Ellis continues his most recent jag of damned good posts reacting to science news, this time on the nature of reality. (i’m bewildered that this story “Time before the Big Bang” didn’t turn up yet in my science news feeds, and grateful that he caught it.) All of it makes sense, turning it from chaos to order, and explainign linear time, but the first thing that springs to mind is goddamned chaos theory, with universes spinning off each other like the fractals of Benoît Mandelbrot.

This makes a hell of a lot more sense than a cycle of explosions and collapses of a single universe, or worse, a single event.

how did this miracle fruit evolve?

Hillary brings something up about this “miracle fruit,” Synsepalum dulcificum, that i slapped myself in the head for not observing when i read the article:

…the real thing I keep wondering about is the evolutionary function of this berry. It would seem to be beneficial to the plant but very much the opposite to the human species, which has the ability to distinguish between sweet (i.e., not dangerous) and other flavors (bitter = potentially dangerous) as a survival mechanism.

Damned good question. Is it some symbiotic relationship with another plant and its fruit?

1.2 million year old human jawbone found in Spain

The jawbone has been assigned as belonging to Homo antecessor for the time being, a hominid that would be a common ancestor to Homo sapien and Neandertals. Stone tools have been found before, dating from that period, but this appears to be the first bone from that time, in Europe. 

It’s not unexpected, but this is going to be cool.

controversy on the handling of the discovery of Palau bones

There is a bit of a controversy surrounding the discovery and announcement of those skeletons found on Palau. The locals were completely cut out of the discovery, and when the National Geographic Society came into the picture, it seems that the movie documentary was a higher priority than a scholarly paper describing the bones.

Memories of the shenanigans of Teuku Jacob definitely play a factor in this, as much as any eagerness to land sponsorship.

via Gene Expression.