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The Kafka Effect

New research shows unexpected change inspires psychological superpower.

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A few years ago, researchers at the University of British Columbia brought two groups of study participants into their lab and asked them to read a short story. One group read an adaptation of a story by Franz Kafka, The Country Dentist, which was typically "Kafkaesque," meaning that its twists and turns made little obvious sense—from the neighbor who kindly but inexplicably acts like a horse to the family that begs the dentist to pull a tooth from their toothless child.

The second group of participants read a version of the same story that actually made sense: A friendly neighbor volunteers his horse, but doesn’t proceed to act like one; the little boy with a toothache actually has teeth. You get the picture.

A little while later, the researchers, under the direction of psychologist Travis Proulx, assigned both groups to a task that involved spotting hidden patterns in rows of letters. When Proulx and his team tallied the results, they discovered that participants who had read the confusing version of the Kafka story were nearly twice as good at spotting correct patterns in the strings of letters. Since then, the researchers have found similarly increased abilities after people look at random word pairings like “turn-frogs,” “careful-sweaters,” and “quickly-blueberries” versus more coherent pairs like “hot-lava” and “cheese-cake.” The same thing happened when they showed people an inscrutable short film by David Lynch, rather than a coherent short clip from The Simpsons. (Homer might be ridiculous, but apparently there is sound logic to his ridiculousness.)

What’s going on here? Why does ingesting nonsense seem to make us smarter?

The Psychology of a Superpower

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by psychologists Samantha Heintzelman and Laura King of the University of Missouri sheds light on this curious phenomenon. In a series of correlational studies and experiments, Heintzelman and King found that when people believed their lives made sense, they let their intuition guide their actions. But during times when they didn’t feel life was as meaningful, their brains shifted gears. “Before a trauma,” Heintzelman and King write, “a person was likely on auto-pilot, relying on intuitive processing. However, after a traumatic event, effortful processing may be crucial to making or reinstating meaning.”

It works like this: When we detect something that doesn’t make sense—when the spouse we rely on to be our rock suddenly starts flaking out, or the neighbor in the Kafka story acts like a horse for no discernible reason—a cluster of brain functions called the salience network immediately activates a powerful set of cognitive skills that go to work finding other meaningful patterns around us. Once it starts, your brain won’t stop looking until it finds something to fill the void in meaning.

If your brain can’t find a good reason to explain why your partner is being a jerk or why Mr. Brown is licking a salt block, it will start looking elsewhere—with extraordinary intensity and ability. It will identify unrelated patterns and connections between ideas and objects that were probably right in front of us all along, but that we just never noticed.

This "Kafka Effect" describes how an unexpected change can be what creativity researchers call a “seed incident.”

Change as a Seed Incident

A seed incident is what stimulates people to explore new ideas because something happened which the same old stories we tell ourselves couldn't quite explain. The seed incident sends us on a journey of discovery. What we end up finding on that journey is another story.

In psychologist Charlotte Doyle's studies of creative writers, the seed incident literally inspires another story, or at least another plot twist or a new character. For other people, the seed incident can be a job loss that spawns an idea for a successful new business. For many, an unexpected change in their work becomes the seed incident for discovering a bolder or wiser new persona. Sometimes the seed incident is a personal tragedy through which people finally discover their life’s purpose. In still other times, the incident inspires an artistic creation. In one recent study, psychologist Marie Forgeard found that numerous survivors of the Rwandan genocide have become more creative musicians and artists as part of their recovery experience.

Together, this research gives us every reason to believe that meaningful, creative discoveries are not just a phony consolation prize for suffering people. They are actually a legitimate neurological result of unexpected change. In their fascinating new book, Wired to Create, University of Pennsylvania scientist Scott Barry Kauffman and writer Carolyn Gregoire argue that creative discovery is in fact a rule of human nature, rather than an exception. Unexpected change is a kind of “bat signal” that summons our otherwise hidden creative superpowers. It's like the 100-pound mom who lifts her car to save her baby, except in this case, the strength is mental rather than physical.

Heroes Aren’t Always Happy

Alas, what we might not find on our journey of discovery is happiness—at least not right away. A friend recently confided to me that after suffering a job loss, a breakup, and a forced move—all within two months—he wanted to throat-punch "all the people who told me, 'This is a great opportunity.'"

As a rule, I prefer to not have people punching me in the throat, so I won’t suggest that your current adversity is “a great opportunity.” Indeed, research shows that although having meaning is an immensely gratifying experience, searching for meaning is like trying to find the toilet at night during a power outage. It’s a little scary and a little messy.

Yet creativity researchers like Kaufmann make a compelling case that it’s right there in that messy, scary period of search and discovery that many of our most important innovations—our legacy-leaving creations—begin taking shape. Nobody knew this better than Kafka. During the final months of 1912, one of the darkest and most creative periods of his short life, he told a friend how “the story came out of me like a real human birth, covered with dirt and slime.” (As a front-row observer of four real human births, I can say that “dirt and slime” captures much of the experience.)

But then again, maybe the mess is part of the payoff. Maybe the mess is precisely why we feel so alive, so very human, in those moments when our brains finally connect the dots between slimy beginnings and beautiful creations.

Learn more in Domino: The Simplest Way to Inspire Change.

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