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Nonsense Not Absurd After All

October 20, 2009

I took great comfort from a New York Times story about two weeks ago that reviewed recent psychological research suggesting exposure to nonsense actually sharpens the mind.  Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia have conducted experiments that suggest unexpected, surprising, and anomolous information (not so much outright bullshit) triggers a salutary cognitive response.

We have known for awhile that the mind experiences and stores information in a way that is very representational.  We experience the world as episodes, and our encoding of these experiences tends to emphasize and reinforce patterns and associated emotions.

When we encounter something new or unexpected, the lack of familiarity alone triggers powerful protective responses.  New experiences that conform to expectations or that confirm existing knowledge or patterns are less likely to capture our focused attention.

Weird and wonderful experiences have unique purchase on our limited attention though.  We pay attention not just because we fear that these new stimuli could signal some potential harm, but also, it seems, because we need to understand what makes them different, and, if possible, why.

Despite the apparent value of detecting and responding to newness, we have known for quite awhile that stress makes us less apt to look beyond our own biases.  We are far more likely to cling to our existing norms and notions when confronted with danger.  But this too has its advantages, because it tends to increase the signal to noise ratio for genuinely new information.  The more confounded we find ourselves, the harder our brains work to find patterns and restore a sense of order, if not balance, to our perception and understanding of the situation.

This intriguing finding suggests that despite the narrowing of attention that accompanies stressful situations, our motivation to restore order and achieve balance ramps up to compensate.  Since we have tended to associate attention with rationality and motivation with emotion, this suggests we should not overestimate the importance of rationality and emotional detachment when it comes to resolving difficult problems.  It is, after all, our emotions that are encouraging efforts to expand the scope of our rationality when that is needed most.

I don’t know about you, but this finding gives me hope.  A lot of people are putting a lot of effort into scaring people into believing that the country is headed for hell in a hand basket.  Americans are being encouraged to narrow their focus and rely on old stereotypes and deep-seated prejudices to evaluate issues on the public agenda.  Is it possible that the more fear these arguments provoke the harder people will look at the record and the more they will discover that they actually have little to fear?

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