Score One for the Close Reading of Literature! Psychologists Say that Reading Kafka-like Defamiliarizing Literature is Good for Your Brain!

Literature intructors and creative writers of the world, unite and take heart! We’re not useless afterall! Psychologists at the University of California at Santa Barbara report in a recent academic journal article that they gave a group of students Franz Kafka’s defamiliarizing literary text—”A Country Doctor”—and found that those who had read the story outperformed a control group of their peers when presented immediately afterwards with some key learning tasks:

“The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat –– something that fundamentally does not make sense –– your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB and co-author of the article. “And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat.” Meaning, according to Proulx, is an expected association within one’s environment. Fire, for example, is associated with extreme heat, and putting your hand in a flame and finding it icy cold would constitute a threat to that meaning. “It would be very disturbing to you because it wouldn’t make sense,” he said. As part of their research, Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and the article’s second co-author, asked a group of subjects to read an abridged and slightly edited version of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor,” which involves a nonsensical –– and in some ways disturbing –– series of events. A second group read a different version of the same short story, one that had been rewritten so that the plot and literary elements made sense.

The lesson here? Perhaps get in the habit of “turning yourself around” quite a bit, confronting your cognitive dissonances, and getting lost in subjects that perplex you. Zen koans, hard sayings in the Bible, difficult literature, subjects you’re agnostic about and don’t have ready-made answers to, might all be rich veins for sustained reflection. In short, avoid cocksuredness and things with tidy endings because they arrest your brain’s impulses to discover new structures and grapple with perplexities:

In a second study, the same results were evident among people who were led to feel alienated about themselves as they considered how their past actions were often contradictory. “You get the same pattern of effects whether you’re reading Kafka or experiencing a breakdown in your sense of identity,” Proulx explained. “People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings. That feeling of discomfort may come from a surreal story, or from contemplating their own contradictory behaviors, but either way, people want to get rid of it. So they’re motivated to learn new patterns.”

Below is not Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”, but one of his other little disorienting parables. This one is titled, “Give It Up”:

“It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, and I was on my way to the railroad station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought. I had to hurry. The shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, as I was not very well acquainted with the town yet. Fortunately, there was a policeman nearby. I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said, ‘From me you want to learn the way?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ’since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give it up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.”

More on defamiliarization here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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