Wired for Laughter

If we are wired for laughter, why?

Reading Laughter and the Brain this morning brought to mind autistic savant Daniel Tammet's observation at IdeaFestival 2010 that he learned the art of social navigation by watching his classmates on the playground and making predictions against which he would compare results.

So it is with laughter. Humor offers unique insight into the working of the human mind because, in part, we are all little scientists constantly comparing the world to scripts unfolding in our heads. And as with magic and illusion, comedy exposes the unconscious assumptions we make as we compress an external and largely unknown reality into lived experience.

Laughter and the Brain:

Recently, scientists have begun conducting research into the neurological processes underpinning mirth and laughter. I would not suggest that neuroscience can 'explain' humor or provide the reason why we laugh at certain jokes or cartoons and not at others. Trying to parse humor, in any case, can be a self-defeating exercise. As E. B. White once wrote, 'Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.' Still, neuroscience can provide some useful insights into what happens when we find a joke or cartoon funny. Ultimately, it isn’t just humor that we seek to better understand, but rather, that most complex and elusive of organs: the human brain.

Humor's power is associative. It depends on shrewd observation. Done skillfully, the well time joke or aside can take on subjects that are much too sensitive to be discussed otherwise. Former IdeaFestival attendee and speaker Baratunde Thurston's satirical self-help book, How to Be Black, effectively raises issues about race in America in a way that a purely historic or straightforward examination never could. In laughter, understanding.

And profit. Thurston's company, Cultivated Wit, will be glad to consult with you on your latest product or company strategy.

Joke telling can also be compared neurologically to the creative act because for both inhibition must be lowered. It is a kind of high wire walk because there is danger.

Indeed, when a comedian bombs on stage, it can take a personal toll on his or her mental health. In an interview with fellow comedian David Steinberg on Showtime’s Inside Comedy, Steven Wright described comedic performance as 'very dangerous, like walking a tightrope, or like running across a lake of ice where the ice is breaking behind you and it is going to take an hour to get to the other side.' Steve Martin told [comedian David] Steinberg of the comedian’s need to steel himself against the pain aroused when no one laughs at a joke or, worse yet, when you get booed off the stage. 'Stand-up comedy is the ego’s last stand,' according to Martin. This proved true for the late Jonathan Winters, who suffered a serious nervous breakdown during a performance in San Francisco in 1959. After spending time in a psychiatric hospital, Winters returned to stand-up only to suffer another nervous collapse two years later, after which he quit nightclub performances altogether and turned his attention to making records.

There really is no "humor center" in our wetware, just a collaborative effort between brain and body, between sense and sense making, to bring order to experience. If there is a deep association in the mind between logic and laugher, perhaps the "why" of humor is to demonstrate just how much there is left to know of the world.


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