Everyone’s a Comedian: A New Theory of How Humor Works

Our sense of humor could be part of an evolutionary survival strategy, according to a book coauthored by Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett

Driving to work the other day, I heard an album title announced on the radio, If It Weren’t for Venetian Blinds, It’d Be Curtains for Us All, and I burst out laughing. Why? The sheer silliness of it, the double meaning, hit me quickly, no doubt to the amusement of any driver who happened to see me cackling alone in the car.

We all have these moments—be it watching Homer Simpson, reading a New Yorker cartoon or sitting around the lunch table sharing quips with a sharp-witted co-worker. Why we find some things funny and others not so much has been a staple for thinkers from Aristotle to Freud, who usually manage to kill the humor in anything they touch.

But there’s a more fundamental question: why do we have a funny bone in the first place?

In 2004, after taking a psychology course on theories of humor, Matthew Hurley, A06, came up with a possible answer to that question. Humor, he speculated, could serve an evolutionary purpose. His thinking was that a big laugh might be our reward for vigilance in unmasking life’s incongruities, a trait that can be critical for survival.

So he ambled into Daniel Dennett’s office to propose the idea as a topic for his undergraduate honors thesis. Intrigued, Dennett, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, agreed to be Hurley’s advisor, along with Reginald Adams, now a psychology professor at Penn State, who taught the course on humor.

I was wondering why the Frisbee was getting bigger and then it hit me.

Dennett found Hurley’s resulting thesis so promising that he suggested trying to get it published. In the end, the student and his two professors collaborated on the book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind (MIT Press, 2011).

The authors detail the multitudinous theories that have been offered over the centuries for how humor—or mirth as it’s called by academics—works. But most of those theories skirt the question that most intrigued Hurley, now a Ph.D. student at Indiana University.

“Why is there funny at all? I think that’s the most important question we asked,” Dennett says.

Brain Candy

A lawyer was approached by Mephistopheles, who offered him a brilliant career as a defense attorney, leading to a seat on the Supreme Court and a Hollywood movie biopic—in exchange for the souls of his wife and three children. The lawyer thought and thought, sweat pouring off his brow. Finally, he looked up at Mephistopheles and said, “There’s a catch, right?”

Human beings are anticipation machines: we’re always making assumptions about what’s coming next, usually based on very limited information. “Evolution gave us minds that tend to statistically fill in the blanks a lot—to make quick and dirty guesses as to what’s going on around us, using experience as our guide,” says Hurley, whose doctoral study is in cognition and emotion. Most of the time our minds do that work well, he notes, coming up with correct, or at least good enough, answers.

But occasionally we’re just plain wrong. Hurley says that’s where mirth plays a key role. The pleasure that a joke can bring motivates us to double-check our thoughts and ferret out our mistakes. “It’s important to survival, and the only way it gets done is if it’s fun,” Dennett says. “That’s the brain’s way, Mother Nature’s way, of getting us to do what it wants us to do.”

A senior citizen is driving on the highway. His wife calls him on his cell phone and in a worried voice says, “Herman, be careful! I just heard on the radio that there is a madman driving the wrong way on Route 280!”

Herman says, “Not just one, there are hundreds!”

We catch the error—we’d been expecting one thing, and when another pops up instead, it strikes us as funny.

Yet our brains, say Hurley and Dennett, have to perform many functions—and looking for incongruities is just one. So while the main purpose of humor is to help us survive, the enjoyment it provides has taken on a broader significance in our lives. “In the same way that chocolate cake is a supernormal stimulus for a sweet tooth—nothing that nature intended—so humor is chocolate cake for the funny bone,” Dennett says.

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay—where are you from, jackass?”

The evolutionary theory of humor isn’t exactly easy to prove, but Hurley says the “cognitive-mechanical details” of it can be put to the test by psychology researchers. Neuroscientists have been studying brain activation in humorous circumstances, he notes, and they’ve also been “finding support for the probably-not-too-controversial idea of reward system activation,” one of the mechanisms by which the authors say humor works.

Social Talent

I was wondering why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then it hit me.

Humor isn’t just about having a good yuk at our own expense, or someone else’s. It’s a vital social skill, Dennett says.

“Humor is part of human intelligence,” he explains. “There’s a lot of social talent, social competence, which is manifest in a sense of humor, and if you don’t have a sense of humor, it’s not like being tone deaf. Not having a sense of humor is a severe disability.”

For example, this summer, when Herman Cain was still in the Republican presidential primary, he addressed a large gathering of conservatives, winning them over easily with jokes told with the timing of a stand-up comic. But when Mitt Romney came on stage next, his jokes fell flat; it was clear that his connection with the audience was weak at best.

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Another interesting point is that we seem to be the only species with a sense of humor. Our close relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees, apparently appreciate fun, but it looks very different from humor. Again, Dennett says, that fits with the evolutionary role of humor: it’s an attribute that would have evolved as humans evolved.

There is, of course, an occupational hazard of studying humor: you lose your sense of it. It’s what’s called being “joke blind,” like eating so many sweet things that you can’t tell what’s sweet anymore.

A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.

Nevertheless, Hurley says he himself is as full of mirth as ever. All the analyzing “killed many a joke,” he says, “but new humorous things happen every day, and I think I’m still as sensitive to them as I always was.”

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