The Magazine

Hee Hee=MC2

A postmortem on humor kills the joke.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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But what could it mean to say that a belief has “covertly entered into our mental spaces”? Or that I “commit” to one I do not explicitly entertain? As the subtitle indicates, the theory has implications about our brains, about how they would have to operate in order to provide the proposed humor‑detector. Their picture of mental dynamics is, and is acknowledged to be, wholly metaphorical, an “impressionistic sketch.” The evidence offered in its favor is mostly scholastic, arguments showing why other metaphors proposed in the psychological/philosophical literature won’t do the job.

Their ruling image, with the technical-sounding name “just-in-time spreading activation,” is summarized thus:

Initial semantic contents are activated by sensation in working memory mental spaces, and the process of perception and any deeper thought ensue from the diffusive triggering of related semantic contents and interference patterns therein.

Got that? Its basic meaning is that we build mental spaces as needed, by processes of association. When I step into a new restaurant, the beliefs and expectations summoned up are, by and large, the restaurant basics (the wait to be seated, the size of the tip). New perceptions (the headwaiter’s Gallic accent) elaborate that picture by dragging in associated details (bigger tip? the French for “horse meat”).

It seems fair to say that the authors are confident physicalists, for whom the mind is “just” the brain and who expect neuroscience, eventually, to fill in the details of their scheme, or at any rate make it testable. That raises two questions. First, does the theory suggest interesting experiments, on volunteers observed in the psych lab or brains observed in the imaging lab?  Not really—at least, not yet.

More radically, what of physicalism itself, the view that things like neuroanatomy and brain chemistry can give an adequate account of our lived experience, our consciousness? Since, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously argued, “We do not have the beginnings of a conception of how it might be true,” the skeptics among us could find the authors’ rhetoric grating—or perhaps fall sullen because, these days, empirical‑sounding talk about “activation,” “diffusive triggering,” and “interference patterns,” or about the inevitable hegemony of neuroscience, is getting all the girls. The authors do enjoy scandalizing skeptics—by speaking, for example, of “stimulus-delivery devices (more traditionally known as the works of art).” And they have a sense of humor, a hip one, partial to Steven Wright, George Carlin, and Steve Martin.

To complete the picture, they want an evolutionary explanation of how our species acquired such brains. A lay reader acquainted with any of the bestselling popular accounts of natural selection and adaptation can anticipate the general line. Consider, for example, third‑person humor, an evolutionary account of which has some ’splainin’ to do. I profit from an ability to detect lurking contradictions in my beliefs, but how do I profit from the ability to detect them in the beliefs of others? One possible explanation is to point out situations in which I could benefit. Suppose that a companion, thinking that a hornet’s nest is just some mud daub on a tree, is about to disturb it. Another is reciprocal altruism. Another is that third-person humor is a “spandrel” that has been “exapted”—an ability that arose as a consequence of selection for some other trait, but proved adaptive and, once in existence, could be selected for.

The authors do not claim to offer more than speculation. To phrase it in a way that might scandalize them, they are engaged in the theological practice of apology, of demonstrating that one’s faith is not contrary to reason. The evolutionary, or quasi-evolutionary, jargon can, however, get out of hand: I defy anyone to show that calling long-lived jokes “memes” that “copy themselves into the future” has more explanatory value than calling it a good story that people like to repeat.

Inside Jokes is clearly and carefully argued. The most fully worked-out part of its theory offers a persuasive descriptive account of the mechanisms of humor, one trailing intimations of an aesthetics—suggesting, for example, that a joke should become funnier if it is reengineered to invoke third-person humor about additional characters, or that good comic timing is what allows an audience “just enough time to make the necessary faulty inference without enough time to double-check it.” (It doesn’t explain the timing required to milk a laugh, though that may concern something different—manipulating not the perception of humor but the social phenomenon of infectious laughter.)