Reading Kafka improves learning?

New research suggest that exposure to bizarre, surreal storylines such as Kafka's "The Country Doctor" can improve learning. Apparently, when your brain is presented with total absurdity or nonsense, it will work extra hard to find structure elsewhere. In the study by the University of British Columbia psychologists, subjects read The Country Doctor and then took a test where they had to identify patterns in strings of letters. They performed much better than the control group. From Science Daily (Wikimedia Commons image):
 Wikipedia Commons Thumb 7 7D Kafka Portrait.Jpg 450Px-Kafka Portrait "People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letter strings –– clearly they were motivated to find structure," said Proulx. "But what's more important is that they were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story. They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did."

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."
Reading Kafka Improves Learning, Suggests Psychology Study (ScienceDaily)

Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar (Psychological Science)


  1. This is interesting as I have actually recently been, for the first time, reading a lot of Kafka. I don’t know if it has improved my leerning or anythanglickthat. It has, however, made me paranoid that I’m going to wake up as a bug who will be arrested for some unknown crime. In fact, after a few days of reading Kafka and listening to nothing but Metal Box by Public Image Ltd., I suspected I was going slightly mad and wrote 8000 words about little, very few of which were worth re-reading. I guess I did learn something from that escapade. Well, I’m off to go climb up my walls since I am actually an educated ape who became a fasting artist because he was trying too hard to make Kafka references.

  2. Ok so these things studies have shown:

    1) Reading Kafka (or presumably other absurdist works) increases intelligence.

    2) Listening to Mozart (at least during formative years)increases intelligence.

    To which I would add:

    3) Listening to Frank Zappa increases intelligence.

    -Having the inspired structures musically and the absurd subject matter lyrically. It seems to have worked for my brother’s kids. Any other anecdotal evidence to this effect out there?

    Thanks for playing.

  3. Great. Another opportunity for ‘scientific management’ goons to say, “Told you keeping them scared and confused works!” and use his whip more.

  4. When I read this, I thought “The Forum”. Breaking you down, and then providing a pattern for you to latch on to, sounds exactly like what they do.

  5. Apparently, when your brain is presented with total absurdity or nonsense, it will work extra hard to find structure elsewhere.

    Does that mean that there is a bright side for having to endure all the “war on terror” rethoric of recent years?

  6. This is one of the reasons why poetry is so important. It provides the same type of unease in the reader as he/she pulls meaning from ordered chaos. Kafka of course was bizarre but in terms of complex thought he’s up there with Eliot.

  7. “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” — William Wonka (inventor, confectioner, humanitarian).

  8. I don’t see how Kafka is nonsensical, especially when looking at his more developed works such as The Metamorphosis or The Trial. As far as I’m concerned, The Metamorphosis is a clear-cut allegory about an individual whose inner values are morally incongruous to the social mores of his time.

    Let me explain, imagine for a moment that Gregor was not a cockroach but instead a lonely gay man who just outed to his family. This would explain why Gregor just “woke up” one day as a cockroach, with little to no explanation as to how he came to be this way. Due to the social values of his time, he would be treated much like how one would treat a cockroach and being ashamed about his feelings, he invariably becomes a total recluse who eventually gets killed by everyone’s hatred of him– symbolized by the rotting apple cast at him by his sister.

    Maybe reading Kafka improves learning because it’s deeply layered unlike other comparable literary works? Just my two cents.

  9. Being able to read German, English and French, I must admit that just _trying_ to read Kafka in German _will_ improve you brain…

  10. @Ilovechocolatemilk:

    Most good literature is “deeply layered,” so I don’t think that’s it (although I also think good literature is good for your brain in general). You could say that Metamorphosis makes perfect sense as a certain kind of allegory, but the situation doesn’t make sense, and Gregor is trying to make sense of something absurd in some might say an absurd way, but Kafka is able to make the reader empathize. So yes, I would say it does put the reader in a frame of mind of looking for order, pattern, and familiarity.

  11. @ Moriarty

    Still, I think a lot of authors get written off as “nonsensical” when really, they’re coming from a place that’s very uncomfortable to talk about.

    This is my problem with literature analysis in general, especially when dealing with some classical authors. Take Lewis Carroll for example, many people who actually have researched his personal life cannot discuss it openly without feeling a bit uncomfortable. Keeping his personal disposition in mind, however, elucidates the meaning behind much of his work. Yet, many people cannot accept the obvious conclusion, instead resorting to rather elaborate explanations for his stories (see “The Cult of the Child”) or simply dismissing such allegations as “pure whimsy.”

    For those who have trouble reading in-between the lines, Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. But before I get flamed for saying such, I do not mean that with defamatory intent; just saying that you’ll understand his works better by accepting that uncomfortable proposition.

    Now going back to Kafka’s The Country Doctor, the story is laden with homosexual symbolism. First, he associates heterosexual sex with sex between pigs. He also associates it with rape, seeing as how Rose gets violently abducted and raped in a barn. Finally, at the end of the story, the doctor is stripped naked and thrown into bed with a dying boy to be his spiritual guide. Read this story and prove to me that all of this is intentional nonsense.

    IMO, the study in question would have been better if it used Dadaist works such as the poem “I Zimbra.” Kafka is a far cry from pure nonsense.

  12. @Ilovechocolatemilk:

    So, really the study might have found that reading quasi-crypto-homoerotic lit makes one smarter?

  13. @ Difference Engineer

    I always question studies of this sort. It’s almost as if the scientists (if you can honestly call psychologists that with a straight face) in question designed the test specifically so it would get media attention. Not entirely unheard of, but certainly it detracts from its academic merit imo.

    If this same study were performed more rigorously using actual nonsense literature, I wonder if the result would have been the same. There is no question, however, that if the study were conducted in that manner, it wouldn’t have made the headlines.

  14. why is finding structure in absurdity a sign of learning? maybe finding absurdity in supposed structure is what’s needed at times.

  15. Excellent! If we simply replace all math teachers with incoherent, Kafka-esque crazy people we can make all the students smarter!

    Or, how about — replace all roadsigns with non sequiturs…drivers will be hyper-vigalent since they will be confused! Ideal road safety!

    We have a whole new philosophy of life here!

  16. When I’ve read the Metamorphosis for the first time, I was looking for some kind of hint that’d make the reader understand that it’s all a metaphor.
    There wasn’t any, in fact, even the first pages made it very clear that Gregor was actually transformed into a big disgusting bug.

    Not being able to make any sense out of it, I went on, always reanalyzing my position.
    By the middle of the book, I thought Gregors metamorphosis could be some kind of reaction to the way his family and society as a whole treated him. I thought that Kafka was basically pointing out Gregor’s unfair/sad situation.

    I thought that everybody was holding Gregor back to get a life of his own (he’s a grown man still living in a room connected to the living room, surrounded by his sister’s and parents’ requests, paying their debts, taking the alcoholic father’s responsibility towards the family upon his shoulders etc.).

    When I finished the book, I felt really bad…
    At the beginning of the book, the family is in a bad situation, and the more Gregor is incapable of interacting with the family, the better they are off.
    When Gregor finally dies (of misery? Of hunger? of sadness and pain?) as a bug, for a second you expect his body to turn back to a human form, but the newly acquired maid just disgustedly gets rid of the bug, the family is relieved and starts a new life.

    And then it hit me: Gregor was unable to understand and recognize that he was a nuisance to the family, he wanted to control his sister, and actually replaced his own father. So he literally turned into the bug he already represented, and died as a bug.

    What bugs me though, is that the way the story is told, the reader is inclined to feel for Gregor and see him as a victim. Just as Gregor sees himself, when in fact he’s just very comfortable with seeing himself like a victim and in reality is the perpetrator. And so is the reader… at least that’s how I felt… would I turn into a bug too?

    This is just my interpretation and there are so many. I’m not sure about that study. One thing’s for sure though, this shit makes you think, and makes you kind of uncomfortable which makes you think even more… it’s just so… maybe this story makes you actually crazy and paranoid and I’m just inventing this stuff?…

Comments are closed.