Co-author Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Steven J. Heine of the University of British Columbia, asked a group of subjects to read an abridged and slightly edited version of Kafka's "The Country Doctor," which involves a nonsensical -- and in some ways disturbing -- series of events.
A second group read a different version of the same short story, one that had been rewritten so that the plot and literary elements made sense.
The study subjects were then asked to complete an artificial grammar learning task in which they 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.
"People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letter strings -- clearly they were motivated to find structure," Proulx said in a statement. "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."
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.
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