A cognitive metamorphosis

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Franz Kafka’s 1919 short story “A Country Doctor” is a tale about . . . well, who knows what it’s about really? The bare-bones plot involves a physician who must make his way through a blizzard to tend to a young boy who is ailing. Or might be ailing, or might not; it’s not clear. Beyond that it is hard to describe, much less interpret the string of absurdities and nonsense that make up this short piece. Time and traditional narrative break down entirely. It’s a disorienting assault on meaning.

That won’t surprise any reader familiar with the works of Kafka and other existentialist writers, who deliberately toyed with reality in order to disorient the reader. Indeed, the word Kafkaesque has come to be a synonym for bizarre, confusing, surreal.

But why is this great literature rather than just gibberish? What is its effect on the reader’s mind? How does a surreal tale like “A Country Doctor” work on a psychological level?

We may never know Kafka’s intentions, but psychologists are beginning to get some insight into the mental dynamics of reading such absurdist writing. One recent study suggests that Kafkaesque threats on life’s meaning might actually prime our need for (and perception of) order and pattern in the world. So paradoxically, experiencing meaninglessness may inspire a keener search for meaning. Here’s the evidence.

Psychologists Travis Proulx of UC-Santa Barbara and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia ran an experiment in which volunteers actually read a modified version of “A Country Doctor,” this one illustrated with a series of drawings as nonsensical as the text. Other volunteers read a short story roughly like the Kafka tale, but more conventional in form. When they were done reading, all the volunteers took a difficult test that required them to identify patterns in long and seemingly random strings of letters. The psychologists expected that those who were disoriented by the Kafkaesque prose would be more earnest in searching—and more successful in spotting order in the chaos.

And that’s exactly what they found. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, those who were unmoored by Kafka found more of the hidden patterns that actually existed, but they also identified more patterns overall, correctly and incorrectly—suggesting that they were highly motivated to seek and find order. But here’s the most intriguing aspect of these findings: A disorienting literary experience appears to have sharpened the volunteers’ yearning for meaning on a fundamental cognitive level; it’s unlikely that the volunteers even thought of themselves as searching for meaning, yet their neurons seemed primed to make order anywhere and everywhere they could.

Proulx and Heine ran another similar experiment and got the same results. Taken together, the studies suggest that we humans are irrepressible meaning makers. Indeed the need for order and predictability may be fundamental to the human condition, and challenging the world’s predictability may be one key to art’s psychological power. Kafka apparently had this uncanny insight into the human mind nearly a century ago, at age 36.

For more insights into the quirks of the human mind, visit the "Full Frontal Psychology" blog at True/Slant. Selections from "We’re Only Human" also appear regularly at Newsweek.com and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:30 AM


At 12:17 PM , Blogger Greg said...

This is fantastic! It might also give insight into why it can be so satisfying to read such stories in the first place even when they frustrate our desire for coherent meaningful narrative (cf. The Castle.) More on the intersection of psychology & the arts (esp. literature) would be most welcome!

At 8:36 AM , Blogger Nevine said...

This completely makes sense to me. Isn't that how we humans help ourselves come to an understanding of why things happen in our lives? When we're faced by a challenge, we tend to search deeper for the meanings, for the answers to the questions. Existentialist writing poses as the challenge, and our search for meaning is our coping mechanism.

At 2:05 PM , Blogger Moeen H. said...

Makes sense. This ties in well with a study that found that people who feel they have little control over their lives are more likely to believe in superstitions and conspiracy theories.

At 2:07 PM , Blogger Moeen H. said...

Makes sense. This ties in well with a study that showed that people who feel they have little control over their lives are more likely to believe in superstitions and conspiracy theories.


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