Mechanism and function of humor identified by new evolutionary theory

June 27, 2008

A new publication answers centuries' old questions regarding the mechanism and function of humour, identifying the reason humour is common to all human societies, its fundamental role in the evolution of homo sapiens and its continuing importance in the cognitive development of infants.

Alastair Clarke explains: "The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively it explains that humour occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter.

"By removing stipulations of content we have been forced to study the structures underlying any instance of humour, and it has become clear that it is not the content of the stimulus but the patterns underlying it that provide the potential for sources of humour. For patterns to exist it is necessary to have some form of content, but once that content exists, it is the level of the pattern at which humour operates and for which it delivers its rewards."

Previous theories have only ever applied to a small proportion of all instances of humour, many of them stipulating necessary content or social conditions either in the humour itself or around the individual experiencing it. But this doesn't explain why an individual can laugh at something when no one else around them does, nor why two people can laugh at the same stimulus for different reasons.

The theory further identifies the importance of pattern recognition in human evolution as Clarke explains: "An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings. The humorous reward has encouraged the development of such faculties, leading to the unique perceptual and intellectual abilities of our species."

Clarke's new theory of humour could also provide the basis for an increased understanding of human cognitive functions: "The development of pattern recognition as displayed in humour could also form the basis of humankind's instinctive linguistic ability. Syntax and grammar function in fundamental patterns for which a child has an innate facility. All that differs from one individual to the next is the content of those patterns in terms of vocabulary."

Pattern Recognition Theory also identifies a correlation between the development of humour and the development of cognitive ability in infants. "Amusing childish games such as peek-a-boo, clap hands and tower block demolition all exhibit the precise mechanism of humour as it appears in any adult form, but whether these instances of infantile humour actively contribute to the cognitive development of the child or are simply a record of the evolution of the species played out in the individual, is as yet unclear.

"Peek-a-boo can elicit a humorous response in infants as young as four months, and is, effectively, a simple process of surprise repetition, forming a clear, basic pattern. As the infant develops, the patterns in childish humour become more complex and compounded and attain spatial as well as temporal elements until, finally, the child begins to grapple with the patterns involved in linguistic humour."

Alastair Clarke identifies the implications of pattern recognition theory beyond anthropology. "Understanding the basic function and mechanism of humour as it begins in infants will benefit the ongoing research into the presence of humour in primates and other mammals." He goes on to propose possible technological developments: "Now that we understand the mechanism of humour the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence being that could develop its own sense of humour becomes very real. This would, for the first time, create an AI capable of exhibiting one of the defining characteristics that make us human, making it seem significantly less robotic as a result."

Alastair Clarke offers two brief illustrations of the theory in instances of humour: "The application of the theory is unique in every instance and for every individual but the following two examples illustrate its basic structure. A common form of humour is the juxtaposition of two pictures, normally of people, in whom we recognize a similarity. What we are witnessing here is spatial repetition, a simple two-term pattern featuring the outline or the features of the first repeated in those of the second. If the pattern is sufficiently convincing (as in the degree to which we perceive repetition), and we are surprised by recognizing it, we will find the stimulus amusing.

"As a second example, related to the first but in a different medium, stand-up comedy regularly features what we might call the It's so true form of humour. As with the first example, the brain recognizes a two-term pattern of repetition between the comedian's depiction and its retained mental image, and if the recognition is surprising, it will be found amusing. The individual may be surprised to hear such things being talked about in public, perhaps because they are taboo, or because the individual has never heard them being articulated before. The only difference between the two examples is that in the first the pattern is recognized between one photograph and the next, and in the second it occurs between the comedian's depiction and the mental image retained by the individual of the matter being portrayed.

"Both of these examples use simple patterns of exact repetition, even if the fidelity of that repetition is poor (for example if the photographs are only vaguely similar). But pattern types can be surprisingly varied, including reflection, reversal, minification and magnification and so on. Sarcasm, for example, functions around a basic pattern of reversal, otherwise known as repetition in opposites. Patterns can also contain many stages, whereas the ones depicted here feature only two terms."

Clarke concludes: "Pattern Recognition answers how and why we find things funny, but it can not say categorically what is funny since no content can be inherently more or less funny than any other. The individual is of paramount importance in determining what they find amusing, bringing memories, associations, meta-meaning, disposition, their tendency to recognize patterns and their comprehension of similarity to the equation. But the theory does offer a vital answer as to why humour exists in every human society."

Source: Pyrrhic House

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17 comments

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STAGGERBOT
1.7 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2008
What a joke.
superhuman
3 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2008
There is certainly some truth to it but as we all know not every unexpected situation is funny, some can be very not funny.

I think humor is more about unexpected situations COMMUNICATED (even if indirectly) among humans and I think that humor was once an important aspect of communication and learning.

Imagine something like the situation with bees when one bee comes from a flight and communicates to other bees where the food is by means of a certain dance.
Now consider a similar situation in a pack of ancient humans before speech - one human communicates some information to others and those who are watching signify the moment they "understand" the message and its novelty by laughter.
Bonkers
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2008
Humour is something we English know a lot about, I've seen crows do silly stuff to impress teh girls, it worked, there is a selection advantage to be had - and a fair one. we know humour defuses situations, its another way out, many comics were bullied at school, and got funny to survive. another aspect is the need for inference, to decode the message, or recognise the hidden incongruence - this allows individuals to bond into a common understanding, a friendship and an allegiance. there's a lot more still, I found the article, like all others on the subject, humourless and arid.
Glis
3.5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2008
I love the idea of explaining comedy via the symmetry of ideas, but I'd hate to think we can break it down into a science. I can picture a horrible group theory diagram that contains every type of joke possible and having to learn crystallography to be a master comedian or vice-versa.
Mayday
4 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2008
Would it be fair to assume that neanderthal humor was low-brow?
KB6
4 / 5 (4) Jun 27, 2008
"This would, for the first time, create an AI capable of exhibiting one of the defining characteristics that make us human, making it seem significantly less robotic as a result."
---
And the terminators laugh their metal asses off at the surprising responses of the humans as they slaughter them.;)
thales
5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2008
Very interesting; this suggests that the primary value in humor is that it rewards both the communicator and the communicatee for transmission of *new* information, which would certainly be a fitness advantage for a group. It seems natural for the other uses of humor as noted by Bonkers to have been exapted.
D666
5 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2008
I found the article, like all others on the subject, humourless and arid.


Have you ever seen John Cleese being interviewed? You wouldn't believe it's the same person!

One theory that I read about a while back is that intelligence and communication developed at least partly as a peacock's tail -- i.e. as a sexual signal of fitness. It would certainly explain why guys 'chatting up' the girls are always trying for the bon mot. All peacocks-tail type sexual signals have the similarity that they have to be hard, i.e. can't be faked. So humour would be a set of behaviours that signal the speaker's intelligence, imagination, and quick-thinking. And the ability to 'get it' would indicate the same about the listener.
Mercury_01
5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2008
I bet that humor was necessary for the survival of our species. Being of somewhat higher inteligence than the animals, we constantly bore witness to and were emotionally affected by the harsh, heartbeaking, frightening, and unfair realities of the wild.

Mark Twain is qhoted as saying that humor is our greatest weapon. it allows us to laugh at ourselves, and to recognize and make light of the terrible world we know and love. It lets us trancent the mental anguish, pick up the pieces and move on, time after time.
x646d63
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2008
A bank robber walks up to one of the bank customers and says "did you see my face?" The customer says "yes, but I won't talk." The robber shoots him.

The bank robber walks up to the next customer and says "did you see my face?" The customer, covering her eyes with her hands says, "no I did not," then points at the man next to her and says, "but my ex-husband did."
thales
1 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2008
Now you're just trying to seduce D666.
Ragtime
Jun 28, 2008
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
ancible
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 28, 2008
@ ragtime... The roots indeed are not funny, and humor IS tied to the problems one faces. But humor is ,in part, a manner of dealing with such a world; so perhaps we have evolved such a "shock absorbing" mechanism because we are actually quite sympathetic and take emotional damage easily.
Arthur_Dent
5 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2008
Many Years Ago, Douglas Hofstadter ( good intellect, but misses some profoundly obvious truth ), pointed out this same thing, though less-developedly:

He identified that humour is, at root, the Strange Loop, or the Moebius Strip ( sorry if I got that spelt rong ).

To render it poorly, visualize the MC Escher one with the ants on it.. walking along, from Start, through the unfolding of the pattern, until one stands right where one started, except one is upside-down from where one expected to be.

This is simply discovering something already discovered, but doing it right, instead of stopping half-way, as DH did.

As for humour being inherently malicious, that's only in some cultures, not in all of 'em.
( and improbability is more fun than malice, so I don't know what culture "Ragtime" lives in..., nor do I want to..., as harm *isn't* funny, in my books, and I've had enough of it. )

One function of Humour is that it plasticizes one's brain somewhat: un-sticking it from set patterns.

That is a survival skill/power.

Someone who's trapped, and can't think improbably, is deadmeat.

Someone who's trapped by circumstance, and CAN think improbably, has got a good chance.

This is significant enough to make humour a necessary part of maximally-effective teams.

( read Rapid Development ( Steve McConnell / Microsoft Press ) for tons of rich information on effective teams & means )

Cheers,
anon245
not rated yet Jul 31, 2009
2 points:

1. I keep on seeing people linking humour to humans. As if animals don't have humour. I think if we are going to understand humour we should look at it from the perspective of any animal not just humans. I have made my dog (Labrador) laugh with slapstick humour.

2. Think about 'physical tickling'. How we can hate being tickled but still laugh when its done. There's got to be something in that. In the sense that it is triggering something deeper than 'humour'. A good tickle is light. So light that the sense of touch is switching from touched-to-not-touched in quick succession. i.e. Reality-to-fantasy in quick succession. I think a verbal joke can do the same thing juxtapose a reality against a fantasy and the brain handles it by jumping between the two concepts in quick succession. I suppose that is a pattern.

Anyway...very interesting.

A duck walks into a pub.
Duck: Can I have a pint of beer please.
Barman: Blimey a talking Duck...here... my mate runs a circus and he might have a job for you.
Duck: A circus? What on earth does he need a plasterer for?
anon245
not rated yet Jul 31, 2009
3 points:

1. I keep on seeing people linking humour to humans. As if animals don't have humour. I think if we are going to understand humour we should look at it from the perspective of any animal not just humans. I have made my dog (Labrador) laugh with slapstick humour.

2. Think about 'physical tickling'. How we can hate being tickled but still laugh when its done. There's got to be something in that. In the sense that it is triggering something deeper than 'humour'. A good tickle is light. So light that the sense of touch is switching from touched-to-not-touched in quick succession. i.e. Reality-to-fantasy in quick succession. I think a verbal joke can do the same thing juxtapose a reality against a fantasy (logic against illogic ) and the brain handles it by jumping to-and-fro between the two concepts in quick succession. Its tickling the brain, tickling the sense of logic.

I suppose that is a pattern so it kind of fits the Alastair Clarke theory.



Anyway...very interesting.



A duck walks into a pub.

Duck: Can I have a pint of beer please.

Barman: Blimey a talking Duck...here... my mate runs a circus and he might have a job for you.

Duck: A circus? What on earth does he need a plasterer for?

point 3:
Read The work of David DeAngelo - Why "Cocky & Funny" Attracts Women

If you see beyond the cheesy,salesy 'spammy-like' squeeze-page and actually read what he says...you'll see this man 'knows' stuff and should be taken seriously.

http://www.double...omen.asp

anon245
not rated yet Jul 31, 2009
3 points:

1. I keep on seeing people linking humour to humans. As if animals don't have humour. I think if we are going to understand humour we should look at it from the perspective of any animal not just humans. I have made my dog (Labrador) laugh with slapstick humour.



2. Think about 'physical tickling'. How we can hate being tickled but still laugh when its done. There's got to be something in that. In the sense that it is triggering something deeper than 'humour'. A good tickle is light. So light that the sense of touch is switching from touched-to-not-touched in quick succession. i.e. Reality-to-fantasy in quick succession. I think a verbal joke can do the same thing juxtapose a reality against a fantasy (logic against illogic ) and the brain handles it by jumping to-and-fro between the two concepts in quick succession. Its tickling the brain, tickling the sense of logic.

I suppose that is a pattern so it kind of fits the Alastair Clarke theory.

Anyway...very interesting.

A duck walks into a pub.
Duck: Can I have a pint of beer please.
Barman: Blimey a talking Duck. Hey, my mate runs a circus and he might have a job for you.
Duck: A circus? What on earth does he need a plasterer for?

Duck in a pub [illogic]
Oh yes, a duck could go into a pub [logic]
Talking duck [illogic]
Barman surprise [logic]
Barman job offer [logic]
Duck talking again [illogic]
Circus has no need for plasterer [logic]
Concept of Duck as a plasterer [illogic]
If Duck did have a job, its feet would make it a good plasterer [warped logic]

In all the story is both completely logical and illogical and the brain is tickled as it traverses and ponders the facets. A tickled brain
--
@x646d63 - Same goes for the logical method of getting your ex-hubby shot with the illogic of anyone actually considering doing it.

Just my thoughts.

Point 3:

Read The work of David DeAngelo - Why "Cocky & Funny" Attracts Women

If you see beyond the cheesy,salesy 'spammy-like' squeeze-page and actually read what he says...you'll see this man 'knows' stuff and should be taken seriously.



http://www.double...omen.asp



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