the humour mill: why our brains make us laugh

I’m hearing rumours that humour is intimately linked to thinking. Bonus! Because I like to laugh. I’m hoping this means I’m uber smart!

A new book (2011) called “Inside Jokes: Using Humour to Reverse-Engineer the Mind” has the following premise:

our brains make sense of our daily lives via a never ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes. Enter mirth, a little pulse of reward the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions.

A sense of humor is the lure

that keeps our brains alert

for the gaps between our quick-fire

assumptions and reality. 

Coauthored by three scholars, the book started as an undergrad term paper. Matthew Hurley took a course on humor, and started wondering why humans find anything funny. Why have a sense of humor in the first place? He then enlisted Dennett and Adams as coauthors when he was encouraged to publish his theory.

They argue that much of what we consider comedy takes advantage of this cognitive reflex. I like it!

In every situation, the human brain needs to constantly anticipate the future by making assumptions about the world that unfold at breakneck speed.

We do a quick assessment and make a lot of best guesses. But this fills our mental spaces with junk, small mistakes that could trigger a cascade of errors if they go undetected, leading us to waste a lot of energy and resources and, in the worst case, inviting disaster.

Finding and disabling these errors is a critical task. But it’s a resource-hungry job that has to compete with everything else our brains are doing. We think the pleasure of humor, the emotion of mirth, is the brain’s reward for discovering its mistaken inferences.

Basically, the brain has to bribe itself to do this important work.

As the books says, most simple humour is first-person humour. Like looking for the glasses that are on your head, and catching yourself in the mirror. It’s a little error, and you recognise it, and you have a giggle. The little errors are ok, but couldn’t discovering these mistakes also be shameful, discouraging, or even terrifying?

Anytime you find yourself making an error, it’s a downer initially. The initial emotional response to any discovery of error in your understanding of the world has got to be “uh oh.” But in humour, the brain doesn’t just discover a false inference, it almost simultaneously recovers and corrects itself. It gets the joke. The pleasure of the punch line is enhanced by that split second of negativity just before the resolution.

I like the next question: would we be doomed without humour?

Humour is a requirement for thinking beings like us. The ability to detect humour certainly improves your chances at getting by in this world. It reduces the mistakes we make and act upon. Somebody with a sense of humor would be a lot more fit as a thinker.

So there you go. Have a laugh. You’re probably smarter than you think!

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