How Reading Kafka Can Make You Smarter

Got a big test coming up? Think you’ve tried every study tip available? Think again…

Here’s one you likely haven’t heard of: read a short story by Franz Kafka before your exam and you may come out of it with an improved test score. The short story in question is a surreal work by Kafka called “A Country Doctor.” It was selected by post-doctoral researcher Travis Proulx (of the University of California, Santa Barbara) and Professor of Psychology Steven J. Heine (University of British Columbia) in their 2009 study specifically because of its absurdist elements. The hypothesis behind their research was that the exposure to a strange and unnerving stimulus would lead the brain to look for structure and order in any subsequent activity.

The Method:

The method of Proulx and Heine’s study involved exposing a test group to the surreal stimulus (in this case “A Country Doctor”) and then administering a grammar test to the group. The test was made up of “an artificial-grammar learning task in which [subjects] were exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings. They were asked to copy the individual letter strings and then to put a mark next to those that followed a similar pattern.” A control group was also tested; these subjects’ pre-test reading consisted of a substantially edited version of Kafka’s text, which arranged the story in a more straightforward plot structure. Proulx and Heine labeled the surreal stimulus as a “Meaning Threat”–“something that fundamentally does not make sense”–while the absence of a surreal stimulus was categorized as having No-Meaning Threat.

The Results:

It was quickly apparent that Proulx and Heine’s hypothesis was correct; the test subjects who had been exposed to the Meaning Threat (“A Country Doctor”) not only found more patterns within the letter strings presented to them, but they were also correct in their findings more of the time than the test subjects who were not exposed to that surreal stimulus.

“People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings.” -Travis Proulx

It turns out that the test subjects were so unsettled by the absurdism in Kafka’s short story that their brains felt compelled to find order and meaning afterwards, as if to make up for the nonsensical nature of what came before it.

So, how can this be applied to your studies?

Well, besides reading “A Country Doctor” before a test, there are a number of other Meaning Threats you could apply to your life. You just have to understand what exactly a Meaning Threat is. You need something that challenges your very nature and the way you innately look at the world. When, for example, we think of fire, we instinctively associate it with heat. Now imagine placing your hand over a flame and feeling an icy coldness, the exact opposite of your expectations. Pretty disturbing, right? That’s exactly what a threat to meaning is. Meaning “is an expected association within one’s environment.” A Meaning Threat is therefore something that doesn’t make sense.

When a committed meaning framework is threatened, people experience an arousal state that prompts them to affirm any other meaning framework to which they are committed.

Exposing yourself to mind-opening (or mind-bending) works similar to Kafka’s will spur you to find patterns and structure in other works. These can include the works of Surrealist painters, or certain movies, like “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch or “Un Chien Andalou” by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel.


  1. waynelecheminant

    Reblogged this on Wayne Le Cheminant.

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