The Good Sense of Nonsense
Why nonsense is so important to children
A young child looks at the rough texture of a wall and sees cartoon faces. In dreams, we nightly struggle to make sense of the day. . . . As a means to survival, the human brain has evolved into a pattern-seeking machine. In a report in the New York Times, Benedict Carey explains what triggers this hunt for patterns and coherence.
According to research by Drs. Travis Proulx (University of California Santa Barbara) and Steven J. Heine (University of British Columbia), when we encounter an anomaly, our anterior cingulate cortex lights up like a Christmas tree and primes the brain for pattern seeking. What is unusual is that an oddity encountered in one area may prompt recognition of a pattern in an entirely different arena. Say you encounter an upholstered chair in the middle of the woods. Face-to-face with that anomaly, you feel ill at ease and the mind snaps into action; suddenly you may see the solution to a math problem you haven’t been able to figure out. “Disorientation begets creative thinking,” Carey observes.
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
This fact has been known by Zen masters for centuries when, to provoke new thinking in their students, they have demanded answers to such puzzles as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “Show me your face before your mother gave birth to you.” This same mental freshness and flexibility may also be the desired byproduct of those who constantly seek novelty: Encounters with the unfamiliar can prompt pattern-seeking acuity. This may explain, too, why those with high I.Q.’s take special pleasure in puns; as the title of the Times essay suggests, “Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect.”
All this reminds me of a favorite book from 2008: Denise Doyen’s Once Upon a Twice. This picture book fits comfortably in the category of Mouse Tales: telling the story of a daring mouse (à la Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Desperaux) who gets into nocturnal trouble (see Randall Jarrell’s Fly by Night) and learns a lesson (vide Aesop’s “Country Mouse and City Mouse”). The illustrations are by the gifted artist Barry Moser–his pictures for his edition of The Wizard of Oz are absolute genius–who does a bang-up job here with ground-level views of a darkened mouse world. But the real treasure of this book is Doyen’s language.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
Once Upon a Twice is full of the dazzle of language invention as Doyen tells about her “risakarascal” mouse who ignores “preycautions” to “wanderyonder.” For her inspiration, Doyen credits Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” that famous nonsense poem that begins with lovely gibberish: “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” And that brings us to nonsense: Why is it so important to children and what purpose does it serve?
Our first introduction to nonsense may come in the gobbledygook of nursery rhymes:
Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
Then, into the lives of many children comes Doctor Seuss, the Headmaster of Nonsense. From him, the young may learn about: the Spritz, the Kweet, the Stroodel, the Kwigger, the Kwong, and the Mop-Noodled Finch–to mention just a few of the Seuss crew to be found in On Beyond Zebra. And then there are life lessons of his books, like the following: “One fish / two fish / red fish / blue fish. / Black fish / blue fish / old fish / new fish. / This one has / a little star. / This one has a little car. / Say! What a lot / of fish there are.”
Growing older, a youngster may next encounter nonsense in riddles: “Why did the moron eat dynamite?” or “Railroad crossing. Can you spell that without any r’s?” [Answers: Because he wanted his hair to grow out in bangs. T-H-A-T.] And the next step may be youngsters generating their own nonsense. Handy for this are “Mad Libs,” those kind of books where you learn grammar while filling in the blanks for the provided sentences. For example: “During the winter, a [name of an animal] went to [place] and [past-tense of verb] a [noun]” might become: “During the winter, a wolf went to Arizona and swallowed a train.” Again, “Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect.”
It needn’t stop there. Adolescents can turn to Norton Juster’s witty The Phantom Tollbooth to make a book-length excursion into nonsense, and adults who have grown older but still retained limber minds can follow this trajectory into James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. But it needn’t stop there. The wonderful “word salads” assembled by sometimes forgetful seniors suggests that the aged have been loosed once more into the fields of nonsense where as burbling babies they played before and where their grandchildren play now. Nonsense can, in fact, be a lifetime’s pursuit and bring us full circle.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents Choice (December 2009).
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