Almost everyday I read MetaFilter. It’s a group blog of cool links, most of them exceedingly weird. Today’s catch includes erotic illustrations of Alice In Wonderland (NSFW), Thomas Dolby’s account of meeting Michael Jackson, and a debate on whether the Large Haldron Collider is being sabotaged from the future. Sometimes I wonder why I read these things, but then I read this other article which talked of how nonsense sharpens the intellect. So perhaps I’m not just jobless.
In addition to assorted bad breaks and pleasant surprises, opportunities and insults, life serves up the occasional pink unicorn. The three-dollar bill; the nun with a beard; the sentence, to borrow from the Lewis Carroll poem, that gyres and gimbles in the wabe.
An experience, in short, that violates all logic and expectation. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that such anomalies produced a profound “sensation of the absurd,” and he wasn’t the only one who took them seriously. Freud, in an essay called “The Uncanny,” traced the sensation to a fear of death, of castration or of “something that ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”
At best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy.
Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large.
“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”
So I suppose that’s one reason I seek these things out. I also remember the earlier days of infinite Internet and the mind boggling links I used to find in Wired Magazine. I suspect that crazy gung-ho Internet is still out there, but my diet has become much more domesticated (Facebook, Twitter, New York Times, repeat). That’s why I like MetaFilter, for an occasional mental shuffle. I like to think that it’s good for me.