Abstract

Beyond either its indulgence in sheer verbal play or its potential for serious social satire, nonsense literature has been said to have an adaptive function because it encourages both cultural and mental flexibility: even as it enables children to challenge social norms, nonsense also exercises their cognitive muscles in unfamiliar ways. This essay argues instead that nonsense stores up representations of the world that the maturing brain rejects as “useless.” It does not therefore constitute an evolutionary “crane,” enhancing the capacity for shared meaning that has enabled humans to enjoy such enormous evolutionary strides. Rather, in the sharing of nonsensical stories, images rejected in neural development are saved and stored in material forms that in turn impact the affective lives of future generations of readers. Shadowing the images that produce more successful versions of reality, the “half beliefs” that nonsense-reading makes possible suggest that imaginative literary culture does something other than accelerate human adaptive success.

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