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Reading Surreal Fiction Could Make You Smarter

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Could reading Kafka make you smarter? A recent study suggests that reading surrealist stories that don't make immediate logical sense can sharpen your cognitive functions and make you better at recognizing patterns.

Psychologists at the University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia have been studying the effects of reading on cognitive functions. They had one group of subject read Franz Kafka's short story "The Country Doctor," a strange and surreal tale, and had a second group read the same story, but structured in a way that made more traditionally logical sense to readers. After reading the story, the subjects were then given a grammar learning test in which they were asked to identify patterns within strings of letters.


Subjects who read the original Kafka story identified more letter strings than those who read the more logically structured version, and were actually more accurate in their identifications, suggesting that they had better learned the patterns. The researchers believe that, in reading a story without a readily identifiable logic or structure, the subjects' brains began actively looking for patterns:

"You get the same pattern of effects whether you're reading Kafka or experiencing a breakdown in your sense of identity," [study co-author Travis] Proulx said. "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 behaviours, but either way, they want to get rid of it. So they're motivated to learn new patterns."

The rub, though, is that the surreal experience must be unexpected to get the desired cognitive boost. Going in knowing you are going to read a strange and surreal story might not have the same effect.

Reading Kafka 'enhances cognitive mechanisms', claims study [Guardian]