Illustration for Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky."
Nonsense and anomalies can befuddle us, but out of our confusion can come some of our most creative thinking. New research is showing that, faced with nonsensical situations, our minds seek patterns we would otherwise might have missed.
“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling (being perplexed) that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” Travis Proulx of the University of California tells the New York Times. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”
According to the Times:
Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.Brain-imaging studies of people evaluating anomalies, or working out unsettling dilemmas, show that activity in an area called the anterior cingulate cortex spikes significantly. The more activity is recorded, the greater the motivation to seek and correct errors in the real world, the research suggests.
In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.
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.
Click here for the New York Times article.