According to the Financial Times, a study published in Psychological Science concludes that an encounter with surrealistic art "enhances the cognitive mechanisms that oversee implicit learning functions."
The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat - something that fundamentally does not make sense - your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment.
It would seem that this study indicates that "difficult" art, the kind of art that defies the audiences expectations of coherence--most immediately a coherence between the world depicted in the work and the audience's conception of the "real world"--actually motivates viewers and readers to try and make sense of it by finding alternative "structures." With surrealism this involves, presumably, finding a way to integrate a surrealistic presentation with one's prior conceptions of the way things are: surrealism becomes an alternative vision of the world, one that breaks from the "normal" perceptions most of us share only to portray that world just as truthfully if more obliquely. One rescues representation in surrealist art by acknowledging the challenge to it.
But "difficulty" in art and literature can manifest itself in other ways as well, on a formal and stylistic level that doesn't necessarily, or doesn't directly, result in a patently distorted view of the world. I believe that innovative, adventurous fiction of this kind can provoke the same kind of response in readers as that described in the PS study. In this case, the reader is asked to suspend the "normal" expectations one might have of fiction--which might be brought together through the notion of "transparency," transparency of language, character, event, setting, etc.--and to make new sense of the challenges to literary experience the work's deviations represent. Ideally, the reader is asked to scrutinze his/her assumptions and to conclude that perhaps the innovative device or practice might make its own kind of sense as a variation on established devices and practices. The reader will have "learned" that fiction might come in multiple forms and various styles, that where the art of fiction is concerned there is no normal.
However, the obstacle to enhancing the "cognitive mechanisms" involved in the reading of fiction is not most readers' inability to make this kind of adjustment but their reluctance to give unconventional fiction a chance to engage their attention in the first place. If they don't simply refuse to countenance such fiction at all, they approach it with the kind of desire for "identification" that makes any departure from the comfortable and familiar difficult if not unacceptable. I am not one to recommend a given work of fiction on the grounds that readers might "learn something" from it, but learning how to read more expansively can't be the least timeworthy use one could make of a book.