The Good Sense of Nonsense

Why nonsense is so important to children

Jerry Griswold

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Walter Crane, “The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon”

Ayoung 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 (October 5, 2009), 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, in another quarter altogether, you 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.”

“Once Upon a Twice.” By Denise Doyen, illustrated by Barry Moser (Random House)

All this reminds me of a favorite book: 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…

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Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.