Why We Laugh

A new theory of humor.

Posted Jun 29, 2008

When last week's number two draft pick, Michael Beasley, played basketball at Kansas State, the school listed his height at six feet, ten inches. When he was measured for the NBA draft, they found his height to be a significantly diminutive six foot seven. On hearing that he had "shrunk" three inches in his time after college, Beasley responded by saying: "I don't think it's a big deal. Other than it's a little disappointing to me that I found out I'm actually a midget."

My wife is not what you might call ‘sport's fan.' Basketball, in my house, is referred to as ‘men in shorts.' When my wife answers the phone during games, I can't talk because I'm "busy with the men in shorts."

That said, when I told her about Michael Beasley's comment, she laughed pretty hard.

This got me thinking about the nature of humor. After all, on the surface, there's all kinds of information that make Beasley's joke funny. There's information about the basketball net (ten feet) and the endlessly overused scouting idea that "you can't teach height" (why doesn't anyone seem to remember that Michael Jordan, the "greatest ever, who was only six feet six inches)" and there's information about the incredibly annoying mega-deal reporters for ESPN and such made about Beasley's three inch discrepancy.

My wife knew none of this, but still laughed uproariously at Beasley's midget crack.

I mention these things because they are a perfect example of what British science writer Alastair Clarke has dubbed: "The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor," a new theory in a field in need of one.

Humor has always been something of a puzzle to researchers. Basic questions like its purpose and its universality have perplexed scientist for years.

Author Arnold Glasow argued that laughter is "a tranquilizer with no side effects," while the political commentator Norman Cousins felt is ‘a powerful way to tap positive emotions.' While neither of these men are psychologists their answers represent some of the earlier ideas about where humor comes from and why we use it.

Robert Provine, on the other hand, spent over a decade studying the topic and later wrote in the pages of this magazine: "laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together....a hidden language we all speak. It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes."

Clarke disagrees with all of them. In his just published theory, he had gone hunting for a ‘global theory of laughter.' Because researchers have been interested more in what we laugh at (content) rather than mechanism, this kind of universal theory is one many thought impossible. But what Clarke realized is that laughter is just another example of our brain's pattern recognition system at work.

Pattern recognition is the term cognitive neuroscientists use to describe the brain's ability to lump like with like, thus helping us to make sense of all experience. NYU neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, in his book The Wisdom Paradox, points out that "pattern recognition is fundamental to our mental world...Without this ability every object and every problem would be a totally de novo encounter and we would be unable to bring any prior experience to bear on how we deal with these objects or problems....[it] is among the most powerful, perhaps the foremost mechanism of successful problem solving."

Over the past few years, laughter researchers have come to realize that the element of surprise was fundamental to most jokes.

For example: How do you get a nun pregnant?

You dress her up like an altar boy, of course.

That joke is funny (unless, of course, you happen to be an alter boy) because it's surprising. The question gets us thinking in one direction-a nun's vow of celibacy-but the punchline comes from another (the Catholic church's pedophilia problem).

What Clarke realized was that while most jokes are surprising, the reason they are surprising is because everyone has an inborn pattern recognition system. It is the violation of standard patterns we find funny. And this violation is a universal.

This is why my wife, not a basketball fan at all, would find Michael Beasley's quip hysterical. There's a pattern. First he's 6'10 then he's 6'7 and next he's a midget. Sure, the midget comment is surprising, but the reason it's surprising is because the previous two numbers have set up a pattern that the last term violates.

And, according to a recent Clarke interview, this has wider implications: "It sheds light on infantile cognitive development, will lead to a revision of tests on ‘humor' to diagnose psychological or neurological conditions and will have implications regarding the development of language. It will lead to a clarification of whether other animals have a sense of humor, and has an important role to play in the production of artificial intelligence being that will feel a bit less robotic thanks to its sense of humor."

That, and it'll help make my slavish devotion to the TV during the NBA playoffs a little easier to joke about.