Thursday, September 24, 2009

"this is your brain on kafka": what reading absurdist literature does to your psyche

I don't have a really good reason for not posting in a while, other than the fact that school started and I have therefore been busy preparing for my class and taking part in other beginning-of-the-year activities. Nevertheless, I thought I'd share this short piece grabbed from aldaily which reports on a psychological study performed on subjects who read a short story by Kafka and were then tested on their cognitive abilities. The conclusion is that reading absurdist literature stimulates brain activity.

I liked this quote:

So it appears Viktor Frankl was right: Man is perpetually in search of meaning, and if a Kafkaesque work of literature seems strange on the surface, our brains amp up to dig deeper and discover its underlying design. Which, all things considered, is a hell of a lot better than waking up and discovering you've turned into a giant cockroach.

In fact, Frankl's point is more relevant than the author of the article asserts here: in addition to the theme of absurdity, Kafka's stories are very often about this search for meaning as well. There is a strong connection in Kafka's writings to the idea of myth and its interpretations. For example, in The Trial, it certainly is true that a main theme of the story is the absurd condition of the person and his environment, but don't forget what the entire narrative is centered on: Josef K.'s search for the reason for his arrest! And does he ever discover the "truth"? Well, I won't spoil the story for you. But my main point is this: in Kafka, you have both absurdity of the human condition and the active search for the meaning of that condition. This is just an additional reason why Kafka is so intellectually stimulating to me. And, you can find it in a host of his other works: "The Burrow", "A Hunger Artist", "The Great Wall of China", etc.


  1. I completely agree with your point and I even can claim that this active search for the meaning of absurd human condition is more important than desribing that contidion for Kafka.
    But does it really necessary to prove that absurdist literature stimulates thinking by the help of a psychological experiment? I mean it seems clear that any kind of existential questioning by which Kafka's writing is full of stimulates your brain.

  2. Yasemin,

    Thanks for the comment! I agree that it's not necessary to prove such a point using experiments. But, I looked at the actual paper and it explains the scientific motive of the experiment in more detail. Essentially, the article was testing the following hypothesis: when our worldview comes into question due to a "meaning threat" (say, through exploring the absurd or being questioned on the unity of the self), does our mind begin to learn and understand new artificial grammars more quickly than it would have otherwise?

    So, the science of it does seem a bit more interesting than this article lets on.

    One additional thing: an interesting aspect of the findings is that these stimulations to the learning of artificial grammars was implicit, i.e., after the subjects read the story they were not TOLD that the patterns they were shown had any underlying meaning to them. They formed these understandings of the meanings themselves. The authors of the paper believe that a fruitful area of research would be to see whether the same results hold true if the subjects are explicitly told after they read the story that they are being shown symbol patterns with an underlying grammar that they must such for the meaning of.

    Thanks again for the comment!