Rob Hardy: Inside jokes

May 16, 2011 10:41:00 AM

Rob Hardy -


Anywhere in the world, if you are in a group of people chatting, you will find yourself or find someone else talking in a way to attempt to produce laughter in those listening. It seems to be hardwired behavior for us, because it happens in every society we know. Not only do amateur humorists aim to bring laughter to others, professionals can get paid to do so, and the payment comes from people who buy tickets because they so value the laughter experience.  


Why do we laugh, and why is it so important for us to do so? There have been lots of explanations for this interesting, enjoyable and universal behavior over the millennia (of course Aristotle had a crack at it), and they are all reviewed in "Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind" (The MIT Press) which grew out of a dissertation by Matthew M. Hurley, who is joined here by co-authors Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams.  


The authors propose their new theory of humor, which encompasses what they say are the partial explanations that have gone before. It is a persuasive theory, and the book is successful for a number of reasons. It quite properly examines the evolutionary role of laughter; anything that universal must be promoting our fitness somehow. It is a serious work; the authors invite researchers to take it seriously and to start up the brain scans and other research to confirm or expand their theory. And though it is serious, and the writing is academic and not jocular, the topic is fun. The authors obviously enjoy jokes and enjoy them better for getting some understanding of how they operate.  


They quote E. B. White, who made a joke about examining jokes too closely: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Explaining a particular joke to someone who hasn''t gotten it is never fun or funny, but a general examination of how humor works can only increase our appreciation for one of evolution''s blessings. 


There are so many things that can make us laugh that it is hard to say that any particular characteristic of laughable things is the foundation of humor. The authors say that looking microscopically at red surfaces will not explain the mental concept of "redness," and so it is not useful to look at all laughable things to find what is the common denominator for the humor within them. We are more likely to understand humor from the inside, from what it does to and for our brains. There may not be a particular gene for the appreciation of humor, but the authors explain that we are hardwired for it all the same. According to their explanation, the wiring was not originally there for the purpose of appreciating humor.  


Our brains are hardwired instead for thinking about what is going to happen next. You don''t even notice it, but at deep levels your brain may be calculating predictions about what that pedestrian is going to do, what will be in the fridge when you open it, and how that new color of paint is going to look in the living room. Human minds are really good at this, at making mental models and seeing them through. They make what the authors call "mental spaces" for predicted possibilities. Of course some of the predictions will include alternatives that exclude each other, and not all the predictions can come true; it might be frustrating to have to modify each mental space, but humans take pleasure in making the corrections as their brains make their pursuits, and make such pursuits with improved success because of past corrections. 


Humor takes advantage of this hardwired internal brain behavior, and gives the pleasure of self-correction of mental spaces. Just as the pleasures of pornography ride upon but do not directly satisfy our sexual urges, or as the pleasures of sweetening from aspartame take over our energy-seeking appetites without having intrinsic nutritional value, the pleasures of jokes and humor represent a benevolent hijacking of the system for correcting our mental spaces. A joke (at least in many forms) sets up a premise, a mental space, and then the hearer gets rewarded by the pleasure of correcting that mental space. For instance, here is a limerick: 




There was a young lady named Tuck, 


Who had the most terrible luck 


She went out in a punt, 


And fell over the front, 


And was bit on the leg by a duck. 




The narrative of this story is barely funny, involving slapstick misfortunes that befell Miss Tuck. The humor, however, if your mind is slanted that way (and it may well be so since so many limericks are slanted toward ribaldry), is that you are expecting the poem to end in some word that rhymes with the foregoing "Tuck" and "luck" but is not "duck." Depending upon your expectation of naughtiness, the rhyme with "punt" might also have turned out to be risibly innocuous.  


The mental space you built for this limerick''s outcome might have appropriately predicted bawdiness, only to have such predictions corrected by the poem''s end. In jokes, this is all for fun, but the fun is dependent on a deeply important internal mechanism of assumption, prediction, and correction, a mechanism without which we could not make our way in the world. The better we can generate mental spaces and correct them (disregarding their role in humor), the better we can interact with everything around us. A good intelligence encompasses good modeling of mental spaces and the capacity to correct the assumptions therein. It is no coincidence that "wit" and "intelligence" can be synonymous. 


That limerick is just one example in a book filled with jokes; there are cartoons here, too, and various ambiguous drawings, so that if the theorizing ever seems dry, there is always a joke coming up soon. Many of them are explicitly pulled apart here, and the exercise is not as morbid as E. B. White might have guessed. The jokes show the many previous explanations of humor, like surprise or the feeling of superiority or incongruity or the release theory of Freud, and the overall theory within the book shows how such previous explanations are merely partial, like the blind men perceiving different parts of the elephant. The theory here encompasses the previous ones, and shows humor to be part of the brain''s essential mechanisms of emotion and learning. "Inside Jokes" is an enjoyable tour of the forbidden, deep, dark recesses we all carry about in our crania. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is