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Thread: The evolution of laughter and humor

  1. #1 The evolution of laughter and humor 
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    I have recently updated my essay on laughter and humor. It can be found at:

    http://sites.google.com/site/basilhu...ughterandhumor


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    Veracity Vigilante inow's Avatar
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    Hi Basil - Can you please share the relevant bits and discuss your essay here? This is, after all, a "discussion forum," not a "redirect traffic to other people's sites" forum.


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    inow, I appreciate the fact that this is a discussion group, but short explanations often lead to false or simplistic conclusions. Without some basic knowledge of the
    theory of humor, the discussion would merely be what I term "word juggling".

    Below is the summary of a long essay, and only those who are more than merely interested in behavior and evolutionary psychology will be able to grasp the details and so pose challanging questions.

    The study of humor leads the mind to ponder many other aspects of brain function, a point that Freud makes in his book concerning humor:

    Is the subject of jokes worth so much trouble? There can, I think, be no doubt of it. Leaving on one side the personal motives which make me wish to gain an insight into the problems of jokes and which will come to light during the course of these studies, I can appeal to the fact that there is an intimate connection between all mental happenings - a fact which guarantees that a psychological discovery even in a remote field will be of unpredictable value in other fields.

    SUMMARY
    The difficulties experienced by researchers in explaining the phenomena of humor and laughter have not only arisen from flaws inherent in these studies themselves but, I believe, errors in accepted neuropsychological theory.


    Humor theorists often begin their research with an acceptance of the idea that the basic acts of laughing and crying are indicative of positive and negative emotional states respectively, rather than, as I suggest, responses to the blocking or redundancy of fearful and aggressive states. In some cases, this has lead to the assumption that laughter is a subsequential rather than a consequential response - a response to a pleasure inducing outcome rather than a response elicited during the processing of the laughter evoking event.


    There is still some acceptance of the ideas that dopamine within the corticomesolimbic dopamine system is responsible for the “reward” and pleasure aspects of the response to what we have termed “humor“. Berridge’s work suggests that although there are hedonistic hot spots in at least one component of the dopamine system, the nucleus accumbens shell, these are stimulated by opioids and not dopamine .The nucleus accumbens is viewed as the gate between motivational and motor systems but the possible link between opioid activity in this region, laughter and the inhibition of behaviors has not been investigated.



    Ist man. “Why are you banging your head against the wall.”

    2nd man. “It’s lovely when I stop.”


    My most contentious assertion is that pain is absolute in nature whereas pleasure is relative. I am not completely alone in this view as the 19th century German philosopher Schopenhauer wrote in Counsels and maxims:


    “....pleasure is only the negation of pain, and [that] pain is the positive element in life.”


    And after a study at the Massachusetts General Hospital (Becerra et al 2001) demonstrated that the brain's reward areas also activated by pain, Hans Breiter, a radiologist at the hospital, said:


    "This study supports the concept that there is a continuum between reward and aversion. It would appear that the philosophers Spinoza and Bentham, who proposed that pleasure and pain were part of the same spectrum, were right."


    Berridge views the opiod activty in the nucleus accumbens as resulting in positive pleasure. (Berridge and Kringelbach 2008) However, I see no reason to reject the idea that the brain can interpret the relief from stress (mental pain) as being pleasurable. Mood is an interplay between arousal and stress, and as jokes are known to increase basic arousal and decrease stress, then I can see no objection to assigning the feeling we call pleasure, derived from jokes and other laugher evoking situations, as arising from these two sources.


    In addition to what I see as the application of erroneous neuropsychological theory, my objections to the three main humor theories are based on their limited application to all forms of humorous (mirthful laugher evoking) events and types of laughter, the relegation of emotional aspects to a secondary level, and the application of what I believe to be erroneous assumptions, that we can laugh “at” people and “get” jokes.


    By applying the word “humor”, with its many differing cultural applications, to their field of study, researchers immediately painted themselves into a corner. The fact that the term “humor” cannot be defined to a level of scientific usage - and the reliance of some researchers on their intuition (we know what humor is when we come across it) - has led to some writers using such nonsensical phrases as, “we experience humor,“ and ,“humor takes place“. The words “humor”, “funny” - and although I have used them in this essay - also “wanting”, “liking” and “reward“, should never cross the cultural/ brain barrier and be applied directly to neurological processing.



    The idea that we can laugh “at” people is the foundation of the superiority/aggressive theory of humor. Only the chanted, Ha..Ha..Ha. of children and the more convincing non-Duchenne derisive laughter of adults come anywhere near to laughing at someone. The telling of a racist joke may be motivated by fear and hatred, but the laughter itself is not consciously motivated, but automatic. I tearfully bristle at the injustices and cruelty the Jews endured in the second word war, but I still laughed when I heard the joke: Israel is bankrupt. Germany just sent them the gas bill. I was not laughing with or at, or in any way denigrating, the Jewish people. The ludicrous suggestion that they should pay for their own mass murder and the juxtapositioning of a mundane event, the reception of a utilities bill, and the mind crushing enormity of the holocaust, elicited enough conflict to induce the disinhibition of laughter. However, it was a degree of distancing of the self from the historical event that allowed the disinhibition to take place.I view the superiority theory of humor as a flawed, “why”, sociobehavioral theory and a non-starter as far as a coherent explanation of laughter and laughter evoking events are concerned.
    I view the incongruity resolved theory as extension of the common and erroneous idea of “getting” jokes. A strict interpretation of the theory is losing ground even amongst the linguists who favor this linguistic/cognitive explanation. In 2005, on an online humor discussion group, the linguist, Salvatore Attardo stated:


    “ A caveat, though: it is important to remember that incongruities in a joke can be fully resolved, partially so, or not at all.”


    Although I agree that conflict is at the heart of laughter evoking events, I believe it is irresolvable conflict that induces laughter. A strict linguistic/cognitive theory of “humor” separates the processing of verbal, laughter evoking events and laughter, parading a reasoned, post-joke analysis of the mechanism and an unsubstantiated “getting” of the joke as the actual neurological processing , calling it “resolution”. The theory takes little note of the emotional aspects of humorous event processing, and ignores the fact that although the cognitive conflicts may be understood (resolved, as the theory’s proponents see it), the conflicting emotional contexts cannot be reconciled.

    I view the incongruity resolved theory as being correct in distinguishing the basic mechanism of jokes, but it falsely applies the concept of resolution, does not give an adequate explanation of the evocation of laughter or the feeling of pleasure and, although laughing is an ancient behavior, gives no insight into its biological nature.


    The relief theory of humor is another “why” theory, but this time explanation is on a psychophysiological level. Although the best known proponents of the theory, Freud and Spencer, did not have the knowledge to express their ideas in language acceptable to scientists today, they did introduce an emotional aspect into the mix. The incongruity theorists exposed the mechanism of a laughter evoking episode but neglected its emotional aspects; the relief theorists introduced an emotional component but failed to elucidate a convincing mechanism.


    As I point out in the main body of this essay, the three main humor theories focus on particular stages and aspects of the sequence of events that take place during a laughter evoking episode. No single theory encompasses the diverse aspects of laughter and laughter evoking events and none address their biological underpinnings or explain their physiological effects, which is essential for a full understanding of these phenomena.


    The idea that a displacement behavior is at the heart of both laughter and humorous events is a bottom-up hypothesis and so initially avoids the stagnating effects of competing humor theories. It is the only hypothesis that I see as being able to give a meaningful explanation of the relationship that exists between laughter and the processing of events that cause its elicitation, doing away with vague explanations such as the idea that we laugh with pleasure when we have resolved incongruities.


    The three main humor theories also suffer from the fact that they are not anchored within meaningful space-time frames. A theory that does not address the “where”, “when” and “how” - in other words, a theory that does not allow a phenomenon to be temporally and physically mapped (in the short term neurologically and the long term phylogenetically) must remain vague and, for the most part, will not lend itself to experimentation.

    I have spent some time in this essay musing on the nature of language. I believe this was important, not only because many mirthful laughter eliciting events are verbal in nature, but to highlight the fact that although the laughter displacement activity is disinhibited during the processing of language, in the rest of the vertebrates displacement activities are associated with action rather than thought. However, this is not so surprising when it is realized that language does not depend on evolutionary new, "clip on" systems but is rooted in the oldest systems that mediate motivation and action. Language sits on the top of a series of exapations, from the reorganization of reactive systems in the development of cognition to the exaptation of primate vocalization in the service of speech. Language probably shares many systems that evolved to manage our dealings with the physical world. William Calvin, (Calvin 1993) proposes that the sequencing of movements (as in throwing) and the sequencing within language are mediated by the same systems and it is possible that the hippocampus is not only important to the physical act of navigation but also "navigates" the form and content of written and spoken language. (O’Keefe and Nadel 1978)

    If a piece of writing can be seen as a maze, having an entry point, entailing being understood, and once understood, resulting in an exiting, then the processing of a joke can be viewed as the entering and navigation of a exitless maze, and the disinhibition of laughter a successful exiting, not by completion, but by jumping over an outer hedge.

    Laughter appears to display all the characteristics of a displacement activity, but further studies are required to determine if the superficial parallels are mirrored in a common neurophysiological profile. With enough money and time, a whole raft of studies could be undertaken. The validity of separating mirthful laughter evoking events into the mechanism groupings of inherent conflict, repression/suppression and empathy could be tested. The results of imaging and blood profiling tests performed during laughter evoking events utilizing a single mechanism and others that utilize a combination of mechanisms might be compared. S
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  5. #4  
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    the bible says laughter is like medicine

    it also says woe to those who laugh now

    id say in last ten years people laugh more but they arent happy or good people, but evil or stupid
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  6. #5 Laughter 
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    Quote Originally Posted by Holmes
    the bible says laughter is like medicine

    it also says woe to those who laugh now

    id say in last ten years people laugh more but they arent happy or good people, but evil or stupid

    I thought this was a science forum ?
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  7. #6  
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    Not all members should be taken seriously, basil. Holmes has pretty regularly inserted himself into that category.
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  8. #7  
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    What specific hypotheses would you test to validate your idea against the 3 other humour theories, and what methodologies would you use?

    Just out of curiosity - have animal models ever been explored - being an evolved trait one could hope to find some correlates.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Prometheus
    What specific hypotheses would you test to validate your idea against the 3 other humour theories, and what methodologies would you use?

    Just out of curiosity - have animal models ever been explored - being an evolved trait one could hope to find some correlates.
    My central hypothesis is that laughter is a displacement activity, and everything else hinges on this.

    If you have read the full essay you will comprehend why I find the use of the word "humour" confusing and only applicable in everyday speech and not on a scientific level. This is why I have, to a great extent, limited my analysis to the joke format.

    If my hypothesis is correct, it becomes obvious that the three main theories only represent stages, or aspects of stages in the joke telling event.

    To validate my hypothesis I would have to compare the neurological aspects of a classic displacement activity with those of laughter. From the work done by Robbins and Koob, it seems there are certainly parallels between displacement activities and laughter. (See full text)

    As for evolutionary correlates, see:

    Provine, R. Laughter American Scientist 84. 1 (Jan-Feb, 1996): 38-47.

    Davila Ross, M., Owren, M.J. Reconstructing the Evolution of Laughter in Great Apes and Humans. Current Biology 19, 1106–1111, July 14, 2009
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  10. #9  
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    Laughter as displacement seems (anecdotally) a cancellation of empathy. For example in the "Israel is bankrupt.." I was gearing up to empathise, but killed it when I anticipated the aburdity of doing so. At that moment I ceased to think.

    I'm just guessing recent work on the neurology of empathy should fit your hypothesis.
    A pong by any other name is still a pong. -williampinn
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    Laughter as displacement seems (anecdotally) a cancellation of empathy. For example in the "Israel is bankrupt.." I was gearing up to empathise, but killed it when I anticipated the aburdity of doing so. At that moment I ceased to think.

    I'm just guessing recent work on the neurology of empathy should fit your hypothesis.
    Thanks Pong. Do you have a site address for the type of paper you refer to?
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  12. #11  
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    Search "neurology + empathy". It's exploding.
    A pong by any other name is still a pong. -williampinn
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