The story goes that Plato is giving a lecture in the Academy on the essence of man. “What is man?” he asks. His pupils listen intently. “Man,” he answers, “is a featherless biped.” It is these properties that, conjointly, distinguish us from the mere brutes.
At which point, Diogenes of Sinope bursts into the room and plunks down a plucked chicken. “Man!” he blares and cackles hysterically. “There is man!”
The rest of the day Diogenes spends enveloping himself in philosophical contemplation: masturbating openly in the marketplace.
Theories of laughter propose to tell us what makes something funny. For example, the Superiority Theory, espoused most famously by Thomas Hobbes, holds that we laugh in order to demonstrate that we are superior to the object of derision. “Look here, my friends. What fools. What clowns!” Other theories advance different solutions. The Incongruity Theory, which gets top billing in The New Yorker, states that we laugh when there is some kind of incongruity between our expectations (a subway scene) and reality (alligators sitting and chatting leisurely). Yet none of these theories of humor seek to explain why we humans have a sense of humor at all.
Matthew Hurley, in his book Inside Jokes, claims to have an answer to this more fundamental philosophical question. According to a recent book review that appeared in The Boston Globe,
Hurley and his coauthors begin from the idea that our brains make sense of our daily lives via a never ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes.
Enter mirth, a little pulse of reward the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humor is the lure that keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality. As “Inside Jokes” argues, much of what we consider comedy takes advantage of this cognitive reflex, much as McDonald’s taps our evolved taste for high-energy food.
Laughter, Hurley thinks, is our reward for detecting errors in our reasoning. Every day we make assumptions about ourselves and others. Some of these assumptions are plausible; others less so; others not at all. When I laugh, I’m rewarding myself for identifying faulty reasoning (the cat, it turns out, is not in the hat), for making invalid inferences (Australia is not the capital of Luxembourg), and uncluttering my foggy thinking (my falling on the sidewalk reminds me that I’m not so graceful). Laughter mends and repairs. Laughter eases up our claims, “unexaggerating” them.
This theory would explain 3 key points about my life: one, why I take so much pleasure in not taking myself so seriously; two, why Jane Austen’s novels contain such immense wisdom; and, three, why I laugh at, and make my fair share of, bad jokes.
Me: Wow, she’s got everything I’m looking for. Beauty, grace, style. Exquisite cheekbones, neck, jawline. We’re going out this Friday night. [Shows friend the picture]
Friend: Yes, she’s beautiful–striking profile she has–but you know that that’s Ingrid Bergman. And I might just add that dear Ingrid’s been dead now for 20 years.
Me: But she sounded so lively over the phone.