Alex Sternick, is an expert and internationally recognized practitioner of the Art of Nonsense and Laughter Therapy. He started laughter clubs in Israel and worked with Israelis and Arabs in an attempt to bring these diverse groups together through laughter and nonsense. His web site is Laughter Stress Management. Alex is the Gibberish Professor for the Msc. in Applied Positive Psychology program at New Bucks University in the UK. Full bio. Articles by Alex are here.
Despite the Existential Theater of Absurdity
“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” ~ Dr Seuss
As a practitioner of Nonsense & Gibberish, a deep field where I find and fulfill my purpose of life, I am very interested in understanding the reasons for practicing nonsense and gibberish. What is the impact of applying them in real life, especially when everybody is so anxious about being logical?
It reminds me of my childhood days when I was reading Alice in Wonderland and couldn’t understand the context and its logic. I thought I was completely slow-witted. Many years later having become very experienced in my work as a Laughter Therapist and Nonsense Practitioner, I encountered what Dr. Seuss said about nonsense. It made sense.
A Study on the Impact of Absurdity
So I wondered whether the relaxation of the left hemisphere of the brain through nonsense, talking gibberish, and laughter may have a positive effect on us. Recently I got an answer from new research done at the University of British Columbia that shows how nonsense may sharpen our intellects. Proulx and Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on The Country Doctor by Franz Kafka. After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings.
These researchers found that nonsense may unconsciously influence the quality of implicit Learning. The students who read the absurd Story chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a coherent short story. Heine said, “The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others. And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”Let’s Try This with Gibberish
It looks like practicing nonsense can contribute to our learning skills, improvisation, and power of memory. I am interested in checking the same parameters but instead of reading absurd stories, I plan to have people speak an incomprehensible dialect or gibberish instead.
Gibberish is a verbal-linguistic example of nonsense. Talking gibberish forces you to leave the thought mechanism at rest. Does talking gibberish have a similar impact on learning skills and thinking patterns and how does it affect memory capability?
What Does Gibberish Have to Do with Positive Psychology?
But you may ask yourself, how are nonsense, gibberish, and improvisation related to the premises of positive psychology?
Viktor Frankl wrote,
“… the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“Pain is inevitable, Suffering is a Choice” (In other words, you can’t control the theater of absurdity in the external world, but you still you have choices about how to react to it: to be a victim or to fulfill a meaningful life.)
Life circumstances sometimes bring surprises, even black swans, in the words of the Lebanese economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who writes about events that are so unlikely that they seem impossible, and yet they still occur. When they do, they can shock us, with either a negative or positive effect. But Frankl also wrote that in each situation, absurd though it may be, even a disaster, one still has the freedom to find his own purpose of life which is higher than himself. He then says “He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.” Purpose in life may be “a human being who affectionately waits for him, or an unfinished work.”Frankl’s “how” may be the nonsense, absurdity, and gibberish that actually happen in real life. Sometimes events like the Holocaust drive people very far from the lives they want to live, but still they have the freedom to find a purpose of life and hence an inner satisfaction, albeit with less happiness.
According Baumeister and colleagues, happiness without meaning characterizes “a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.” Frankl suggests that the very pursuit of happiness may take us away from it, since we may be left within our comfort zones having enough money, food, and daily pleasures that we aren’t driven to fulfill our purpose of life. But then the tsunami may shock us.
Research by Baumeister and colleagues at Stanford University on 400 Americans provides new insights into meaning and happiness, including snapshots of both the happy and meaningless life and the unhappy but meaningful life.
“Put another way, humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.
~ Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker, & Garbinsky
One of my thoughts after reading this paper is that having negative events happen to you illogically is reflected in the chaotic pattern of gibberish, where the words and context lose any meaning. These events decrease your happiness, that is, the satisfaction of basic needs and desires, living an easygoing life, and avoiding difficult entanglements. But being able to cope with them can increase the amount of meaning and associated satisfaction you have in life.
A study by Mauss and colleagues in 2011 confirmed this finding and found that people who have meaning in their lives in the form of a clearly defined purpose rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad compared with than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. See the article by Emily Esfahani Smith for more on Viktor Frankl and the importance of meaning in life.Nonsense as a Path to Meaning
Is it possible that even for events as horrible as the Holocaust, we can train ourselves not to take the external world so seriously and to see meaning in life beyond the self? Viktor Frankl was in favor of using paradox and humor in challenging situations. He used these approaches in his clinical practice and even named one of his treatments Paradoxical Intention. Another therapist, Frank Farelly, invented Provocative Therapy, which advocates radical (and sometimes humorous) therapeutic moves intended to jolt the client out of his current mindset.
Perhaps the first step toward finding a purpose of life and fulfilling a personal life mission is to accept what reality brings, to live peacefully with the paradoxical nature of reality. Living peacefully with the absurd, the Existential Nonsense Theater of reality, where black swans show up from time to time is enhanced by existential laughter. Learning not to take them too seriously is the first step to cope with life challenges and even tsunamis.
The second step may be to recognize that adversity is part of finding purpose in life. According to a Jewish proverb, “Man Plans, God Laughs.” But when we are too enrolled in reason, it is quite hard for us to accept surprises, especially when we are addicted to staying in the comfort zone where we are surrounded by daily hedonic pleasures.
Practice Speaking Irrationally
Gibberish, the language that reflects absurdity and nonsense, allows us to speak irrationally and not to fight to understand everything. This is the only way of communication that can leave the mind and the “chattering box” at rest.With gibberish, anyone can say anything without being wrong or judged. The only law that applies here is that “Anything goes.” Some say this language is named after the Middle Eastern alchemist from the 8th century Ibn Jabir, because his highly technical speech sounded like… gibberish.
Can practicing gibberish exercises, over and over again help us accept real life as it is by helping us play with nonsensical events instead of being victimized by them? Can it help us be better prepared for future surprises that can shock us? Can practicing nonsense help us to find our own meaning and purpose in life? If we understand from within that the external world is, by its nature, full of absurdities and contradiction, we can make choices to express meaningful purpose in our lives instead of following a nihilistic way of self-neglect and pessimism. Perhaps we could say, “If we plan, but God laughs, let’s laugh with him.”
I would love to explore scientifically those questions:
- Does acceptance of the existential absurdity help us find meaning in life?
- Does it help us to overcome black swans and crises more easily?
- Does practicing gibberish improve our implicit learning skills by freeing intuition and the unconscious?
- If so, does that help us find better, more creative ways to cope with any situation?
I’m looking for a research partner to explore these questions and the connections between nonsense and both positive psychology and cognitive psychology. Find out more here.
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Garbinsky, E. N. (in press). Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life. Journal of Positive Psychology.
Farrelly, F. (1981). Provocative Therapy. Meta Publications.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kashdan, T. (2010). The Problem with Happiness. Huffington Post Blog.
Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4): 807-815.
Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2009). Connections from Kafka: Exposure to meaning violations improves implicit learning of artificial grammar. Psychological Science, 20, 1125 – 1131. Abstract.
Smith, E. E. (2012) There is more to Life than being happy. The www.theatlantic.com
Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility”. New York: Random House and Penguin.
GibberishWorldTour Europe 2012-Finland-Leaders Certified Training with Alex Sternick
Photo Credits via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Cat in the Hat sketch courtesy of amouse
In a bubble courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Gibberish on a t-shirt courtesy of Wm Jas
Gibberish pathways courtesy of jenny downing
Gibberish on a car courtesy of origamidon