How Your Sense of Humor Works

Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind


Book Review: ‘Inside Jokes, Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind,’ by Mathew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams, Jr.

The list of great minds through the ages that have addressed the subject of humor and sense of humor is venerable indeed: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Freud just to drop some of the big names. All agree that it is a fascinating, and sometimes confounding subject, integral to the human experience. That may be all they agree about. So one might think that there would be an enormous library dedicated to the subject. Alas that would be wrong. It is not a voluminous library dedicated to sense of humor. And what does exist is rather dull.  After E.B. White surveyed their work he said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.”

Happily things may be beginning to change.  The revolutions in neuroscience and artificial intelligence are bringing new insights and vital theories about humor and sense of humor.

Whether you agree with him or not, Daniel Dennet is one of the foremost thinkers in the science of consciousness. In Inside Jokes he has collaborated with Mathew Hurley, a leading researcher on creativity and emotions and Reginald Adams, an academic psychologist at Penn State.  This is a dense book, and they cover a lot of ground in just 300 pages. They have a highly original and compelling theory of the evolutionary purpose of laughter and sense of humor. They cover topics such as “Why do we feel pleasure when we laugh?”, “What is the relationship between problem solving and humor?”, “Could we make a robot with a sense of humor?”

My central interest is in their discussion of the humans as “the ultimate anticipation generators”. We expect future events to fall in line with our experiences. George Lakoff and others have demonstrated how our memories frame and script cognitive models that often determine how we react to information.  Inside Joke goes further, looking past our memories to software engineering models of “just-in-time processing” showing that our anticipations are so abundant and so automatic that we often don’t even need to call on past experience to form anticipations.  The authors  ask: “How far does automatic expectation-generation go?” They don’t have a conclusive answer. (And when you get down to it, isn’t “automatic expectation generation” just a fancy update to Aristotle who observed that “the secret of humor is surprise”?)

There is wide agreement that the brain is essentially a prediction engine. This is central to any useful theory about sense of humor, including those that power LafLife. A key observation that we add to the mix: humans don’t just anticipate the future, but when the future arrives, and we obtain new information, we rarely change our minds. Instead, quite unconsciously, we make non-conforming events and information conform. Our unconscious expectations remain in charge.

Our sense of humor is attracted to humor that both challenges and confirms our conscious and unconscious expectations, regardless of whether our expectations are right or wrong. Mark Twain understood the essence of the issue as a central aspect of human nature: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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