Making Sense of Nonsense

January 30, 2010 at 5:24 am Leave a comment

I’ve recently been watching episodes of the television series Fringe and while sometimes the characters may annoy or intrigue my Boomer brain with their idiosyncratic or enigmatic behavior, the plot line puzzle always gets my attention.  For those not familiar with the series, the first several minutes of the show most often begin with a mysterious and horrific incident that is seemingly nonsensical, but that a special FBI team (organized to study paranormal behaviors and activities) investigates in the hopes of solving who or what did it and why…and most importantly is there a pattern to the seemingly random events portrayed?

I believe the reasons for my increasing tolerance for the bizarre story lines and plot twists can be attributed to an article I read in the New York Times dated October 6, 2009, “How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect,” authored by Benedict Carey. The article cites a study that suggests that when encountering something that seems to go against logic and expectation, our brains try to sense patterns that might otherwise be missed – in mathematical equations, language, and life in general. According to the article, coming across something absurd or uncanny can be disorienting and/or creepy and our brains grope for something, anything that makes sense. Travis Proulx, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is quoted, “We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere.”

An assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Michael Inzlicht, relates that brain-imaging studies of people evaluating paradoxes or working out unsettling dilemmas showed an increased level of activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex and that the more stimulation of this area, the greater the motivation or ability to seek and correct errors in the real world. On the other hand, some studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist, and thus might become more prone to conspiracy theories. The urge to make sense may be overly compelling no matter the evidence at hand. If you do watch Fringe, Dr. Walter Bishop and his friends certainly would seem to be under the sway of pattern recognition.

While scientific evidence is still being collected, the latest research appears to be encouraging to those of us who love puzzles and spine tinglers – for at least some of the time, disorientation leads to highly creative thinking and the ability to make complex connections and piece things together in an entirely new way. So the next time your friends make fun of you for watching any of the seemingly silly entertainments such as Fringe, Lost, Bones, Heroes, etc., just tell them you’re exercising your brain and you’ll get back to them when you’ve solved the mysteries of the universe!

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Best New Year’s Resolution: Read More! Zoomers: the new Boomers

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