Saturday, December 26, 2020

"Science" Understands Very Little About Laughter...,

SA  |  For instance, how can the sometimes opposite functions of humor, such as promoting social bonding and excluding others with derision, be reconciled? And when laughter enhances feelings of social connectedness, is that effect a fundamental function of the laughter or a mere by-product of some other primary role (much as eating with people has undeniable social value even though eating is primarily motivated by the need for nourishment)?

There is much evidence for a fundamental function. Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, showed in Current Directions in Psychological Science, for example, that individuals laugh 30 times more in the company of others than they do alone. In his research, he and his students surreptitiously observed spontaneous laughter as people went about their business in settings ranging from the student union to shopping malls.

Forabosco notes that there is also some confusion about the relation between humor and laughter: “Laughter is a more social phenomenon, and it occurs for reasons other than humor, including unpleasant ones. Moreover, humor does not always make us laugh.” He notes the cases where a person is denigrated or where an observation seems amusing but does not lead to laughter.

A further lingering area of debate concerns humor’s role in sexual attraction and thus reproductive success. In one view, knowing how to be funny is a sign of a healthy brain and of good genes, and consequently it attracts partners. Researchers have found that men are more likely to be funny and women are more likely to appreciate a good sense of humor, which is to say that men compete for attention and women do the choosing. But views, of course, differ on this point.

Even the validity of seeking a unified theory of humor is debated. “It is presumptuous to think about cracking the secret of humor with a unified theory,” Forabosco says. “We understand many aspects of it, and now the neurosciences are helping to clarify important issues. But as for its essence, it’s like saying, ‘Let’s define the essence of love.’ We can study it from many different angles; we can measure the effect of the sight of the beloved on a lover’s heart rate. But that doesn’t explain love. It’s the same with humor. In fact, I always refer to it by describing it, never by defining it.”

Still, certain commonalities are now accepted by almost all scholars who study humor. One, Forabosco notes, is a cognitive element: perception of incongruity. “That’s necessary but not sufficient,” he says, “because there are incongruities that aren’t funny.” So we have to see what other elements are involved. To my mind, for example, the incongruity needs to be relieved without being totally resolved; it must remain ambiguous, something strange that is never fully explained.”

Other cognitive and psychological elements can also provide some punch. These, Forabosco says, include features such as aggression, sexuality, sadism and cynicism. They don’t have to be there, but the funniest jokes are those in which they are. Similarly, people tend to see the most humor in jokes that are “very intelligent and very wicked.”

“What is humor? Maybe in 40 years we’ll know,” Forabosco says. And perhaps in 40 years we’ll be able to explain why he laughs as he says it.