Books : reviews

Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, Reginald B. Adams, Jr..
Inside Jokes: using humor to reverse engineer the mind.
MIT Press. 2011

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 4 February 2014

Some things are funny—jokes, puns, sitcoms, Charlie Chaplin, The Far Side, Malvolio with his yellow garters crossed—but why? Why does humor exist in the first place? Why do we spend so much of our time passing on amusing anecdotes, making wisecracks, watching The Simpsons? In Inside Jokes, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams offer an evolutionary and cognitive perspective. Humor, they propose, evolved out of a computational problem that arose when our long-ago ancestors were furnished with open-ended thinking. Mother Nature—aka natural selection—cannot just order the brain to find and fix all our time-pressured misleaps and near-misses. She has to bribe the brain with pleasure. So we find them funny. This wired-in source of pleasure has been tickled relentlessly by humorists over the centuries, and we have become addicted to the endogenous mind candy that is humor.

This started life as Hurley’s dissertation, but fear not: it is not some dull stodgy academic treatise. Despite being peppered with jokes, however, it is also not a side-splitting read. It is instead a clearly written in-depth account of the authors’ evolutionary cognitive theory of humour. The overarching argument is excellently summarised in the back-cover blurb (above); in a little more detail, it runs:

This thesis is introduced in the context of an emotional and cognitive model of how we think. Emotion is clearly important in things like “fight or flight”, but also for many other aspects of our life. Certain forms of brain damage that inhibit emotions make it difficult or impossible for those people to make decisions: not because they can no longer reason, but because they have no urge to make a decision. Thinking itself is such hard work, we need emotions to encourage us to do so.

p79. Boredom has its place in driving us out from cognitive malaise. Though curiosity inspires our cognitive apparatus into detailed exertion surrounding particular as-of-yet-unexplained regularities, we would scarcely commence toil at all without the dull pain of boredom to keep us from the simple irresponsibility of just doing nothing. If there is no pressing topic to think about, we still think, and incessantly so, because it hurts not to.

Although we think incessantly, at times we need to think quickly, and to make a decision before we have all the information. There is an evolutionary advantage to literally jumping to conclusions: those that pondered more deeply were eaten. But if we don’t have all the information, inevitably we will make mistakes, no matter how well evolution has honed our conclusion-jumping heuristics into rational emotional behaviours.

p82. Choosing how to behave under uncertainty requires a heuristic choice process. Good heuristics give excellent approximations much of the time. But, in the (restricted-by-design) areas where they fail, they give predictably—even pathologically—poor results. The emotions are rational, but the system is a heuristic driver of behavior that operates on incomplete information; so we must accept that the emotions will fail us in some ways, such as overreactions and addictions, that are irresolvable.

Mistakes can be dangerous, as they will include false information about the world, which later will pollute the very reasoning we need in order to survive. So we have evolved mechanisms to help us correct these mistakes.

p120. The need, then, is for a timely and reliable system to protect us from the risks entailed by our own cleverness. Discerning and locating these mistakes would have the immediate payoff of allowing current reasoning to progress without an error (before we act on such errors), but would also provide a legacy for the future, keeping a fallacious conclusion from becoming registered as verity in long-term memory. A mechanism for consistency checking is indispensable for a system that depends crucially on data-intensive knowledge structures that are built by processes that have been designed to take chances under time pressure. Undersupervised and of variable reliability, their contributions need to be subjected to frequent “reality checks” if the organism that relies on them is to maintain its sanity.

However, this error correction is expensive, and is competing for the same resources that the original thought uses. Something expensive needs some reason to happen. This is the key to the authors’ model: the reason is the evolved reward mechanism of mirth. Sweet foods are not intrinsically “sweet”; we experience them as sweet (a pleasant emotional response) because we are evolved to find them so: sugar was a rare and valuable energy source. Similarly, jokes are not intrinsically “funny”; we experience them as funny (a pleasant emotional response) because we are evolved to find them so: error correction is a valuable cognitive function.

Having introduced their thesis, the authors then subject it to various challenges. It needs to account for the diverse range of things we find funny, and yet should also explain why closely related things are not funny. They do this in considerable detail, picking apart and analysing a wide range of humorous and related event. Of course, picking apart a joke destroys its humour; interestingly, the theory even explains why it destroys the humour.

This is a fascinating and well-argued account of a particular aspect of our evolutionary heritage. Recommended. (Some of the example jokes included are even funny.)