Understanding laughter yields insights into how our brains process a complex world and how that, in turn, makes us who we are. Unhappiness can breed creativity, and the best jokes require both intellectual gymnastics and astute observation of human

MARCH 17, 2014, 4:33 PM  1 Comments

“Ha!” Takes a Serious Look at Humor

By FLORENCE WILLIAMS

image001-7Patricia Wall/The New York Times

So there’s this baby who has swallowed a .22-caliber bullet. The mother rushes into a drugstore, crying, “What shall I do?”
“Give him a bottle of castor oil,” replies the druggist, “but don’t point him at anybody.”

Whether you find this joke amusing depends on many more variables than you probably ever realized. It depends on a common cultural understanding of the technical properties of castor oil. It depends, as many funny jokes do and as any fourth grader can attest, on our own squeamishness about bodily functions. Getting less obvious, your sense of humor can also depend on your age, your gender, your I.Q., your political inclinations, how extroverted you are and the health of yourdopamine reward circuit.

If you think all this analysis sounds a bit, well, unfunny, E. B. White would back you up. He once wrote that picking apart jokes is like dissecting frogs: Few people are interested, and the subject always dies in the end.

Fortunately, the cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems isn’t afraid of being unfunny. Humor is worthy of serious academic study, he argues in his book, “Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why,” (Read an excerpt.) because it yields insights into how our brains process a complex world and how that, in turn, makes us who we are.

Though animals laugh, humans spend more time laughing than exhibiting any other emotion. But what gives some people a better sense of humor than others? Not surprisingly, extroverts tend to laugh more and produce more jokes; yet in tests measuring the ability to write cartoon captions, people who were more neurotic, assertive, manipulative and dogmatic were actually funnier. As the old saw holds, many of the best comics really are miserable.

Perhaps, Dr. Weems writes, unhappy people are “more likely than others to speak out in awkward or socially unacceptable ways to make a good joke.” Or, as people from Aristotle to Gertrude Stein have pointed out, unhappiness can breed creativity, and the best jokes require both intellectual gymnastics and astute observation of human nature.

Analyzing humorsometimes requires taking jokes apart. Dr. Weems unpacks “getting” jokes into three basic components: constructing (sorting through relevant knowledge, experience and expectations), reckoning (jettisoning our errors and mistaken expectations) and resolving (reaching a satisfying, often surprising conclusion). See how your brain quickly does all three when reading the Leno-worthy headline “Doctor Testifies in Horse Suit.”

Dr. Weems argues that these three stages are the same ones we use for solving daily problems, from logistical to interpersonal to existential. “Interpreting our world,” he writes, “is a creative event.” At their root, jokes are about conflict, and “detecting errors is how our brains turn conflict to reward.” Without this ability, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions, learn new tricks or get along with each other.

There are some important questions the book doesn’t quite tackle. In particular, the discussion of male and female humor is interesting but unsatisfying. Explaining why men tend to make more jokes yet women are more likely to laugh at them, Dr. Weems speculates that women approach jokes “with a more open mind.” But I suspect there are cultural factors at work having to do with power and submission, as well as hard-wired evolutionary courtship strategies. Make us laugh, and we’re yours.

Men want women to smile, much to the chagrin of feminists like the street artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh (see her website, Stop Telling Women to Smile). Interestingly, women laugh less as they age, but not men.

Still, Dr. Weems makes a good case that humor makes us our best selves, and that we should all laugh more. “Studies show that humor improves our health, helps us get along better with others and even makes us smarter,” he writes. Laughter literally loosens up our blood vessels, promoting healthy circulation, in a way similar to aerobic exercise.

Interestingly, though, the funniest people don’t live longer. Not only do they tend to be more neurotic, they are also likelier to smoke, to be more sedentary and to gain weight.

Still, even if it doesn’t extend life, humor makes it more bearable by lessening our emotional and physical pain.

In one famous humor study conducted by James Rotton at Florida International University, subjects who watched funny movies after surgery requested 25 percent less pain medication. Another study showed that watching an episode of “Friends” reduced anxiety three times as effectively as just sitting and resting. Subjects also performed better on cognitive tests, such as word-association problems, after reading funny jokes and watching videos of Robin Williams performing stand-up comedy.

For those of us who are more Grinch than Groucho, Dr. Weems says it is possible to improve your sense of humor, either through training or by increasing your exposure to funny media and people, along with lots of practice. To his credit, he even tried some stand-up of his own one night at a club in Baltimore.

Did he kill it? Apparently not. Luckily for us, it looks as if he’ll stick to his day job.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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