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Juan García Ruiz
October 12th, 2022 · 9 min read ·
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What is Beethoven doing right now? De-composing.

Why do we laugh when we hear a joke? Why do we feel our brains tingle when we hear a pun? Sometimes a short statement like Beethoven’s is enough to make us laugh. We feel a sense of reward when we discover that decomposing could refer to body decay or to the antonym of composing music. But humor is more than puns.

An English, a French and a Spanish researcher meet in a bar after a congress and the Spanish researcher tells the others: good evening gentlemen, what are you going to drink?

Sometimes humor is constructed from meanings or circumstances shared by a group of people or a community, like the Spanish researchers’ community, which is united by the precariousness of academia in their country. This type of humor not only increases cohesion among these people, but it is an elegant and funny way to make a social critique. And this is just one more example. Humor is difficult to define because it has no limits. But the intriguing thing is that we are one of the only species that laugh, at least that we know of. And we laugh at everything, even at our own downfalls. Humor is a mystery.

Matthew is a theorist, interested in biology and cognition. He turned his dissertation on the emotions that drive cognition into the book Inside Jokes, along with his coauthors, Daniel Dennett and Reginald Adams. He is now working towards understanding how goal-directedness comes to exist.

Juan García Ruiz: What led you to study laughter?

Matthew M. Hurley: I first became aware that we ought to theorize about humor when a friend of mine, the late Sasha Chislenko, shared his own theory of humor with me. And as I thought about it over the next couple years, I realized the topic was more important than we normally imagine it could be. The idea that we enjoy humorous stimuli, that somewhere and somehow in our biological and psychological constitution there exists an emotion that is devoted to this category of perception, means it most likely is very important to the kind of existence that we live. But the fact that we usually laugh at someone’s failings, even if it is our own, made me wonder what it could be about failing that we should enjoy. When I then took a class in humor theory, taught by Reg Adams, I was given the opportunity to try to answer the question, and Inside Jokes is the result of further developing that answer.

JGR: Why do we enjoy puns? Do we enjoy them for the same reason we enjoy seeing someone falling down?

MMH: I think puns may just be one, somewhat accidental, source of humor. I’m glad you used the term enjoy here, instead of laugh at. We don’t just laugh at things, when something is truly mirthful we enjoy it deeply and feel quite rewarded by it. Enjoyment forms the core of my work: the epistemic emotion theory. The main idea of it is that we have a series of emotions (including confusion, doubt, and curiosity) that serve epistemic functions. In other words, these emotions teach us the cognitive behaviors that constitute thinking. The epistemic emotions teach us to look for information, to root out contradictions, and generally to curate our knowledge of the world. We feel a distinctive type of ache when things are contradictory, and another sort of discomfort when the pieces of a puzzle just don’t fit. There is a kind of mental hunger that compels us to figure out how things work. We get a unique shiver in our spine when we do discover some unifying clarity while contemplating a project. Mirth, I propose, is the special kind of delight that rewards us for discovering that we have leapt to a conclusion. The emotion is there in order to encourage us to do more of the kinds of thinking work that we just did to discover the mistake.

Most puns tend to take advantage of this system simply by setting up situations that are likely to cause us to make interpretive mistakes about the meanings of words as they are being said or read. As we first come across a pun, our minds jump first to the conclusion that the words have one meaning (Two goldfish are in their tank), and then discover that we’ve been led down the garden path, so to speak, as we realize there is a more fitting meaning, given the rest of the speaker’s phrase or sentence (One of them says to the other, “you man the guns, I’ll drive”). The comedian here got us to jump to the conclusion that the fish are in a fish tank, and it turns out it was a military tank. But it’s not a great joke. The punster sort of rough-handled us to make that happen, so we may be a little amused, but possibly a little annoyed at the same time.

JGR: What is the essence of humor?

MMH: This time, I’m thrilled that you used the word essence. Although my theory sounds somewhat essentialist, I believe it best not to think of a thing such as humor as having an essence at all. Mirth interacts richly with the remainder of the contents of our minds, sometimes being enhanced and other times being canceled. The category of humor stimuli then becomes a richly evolving landscape.

To try to give a bit of detail about this idea, we might notice first that, while humor’s main purpose is to discover natural moments in our everyday lives, jokes nonetheless become manufactured, unnatural things that are evolved and shared precisely in order to make one another feel amused. They become a kind of candy for the mind. Comedians might add in, or emphasize, a bit of surprise or wonder in their stories. Sometimes jokesters throw in a little taboo breaking, or they add some sexual innuendo that delights the mind in still other ways. There is this game in our culture of trying to entertain one another by taking advantage of reward systems that were meant to serve other purposes, and while the enjoyment of this game may not necessarily all be mirth, still, because these types of enjoyment often or usually come packaged together with mirth, we tend to consider a large number of these things to be jokes. As you can see, this makes it very hard to simply give an essence.

JGR: Jokes are related to some extent to mistakes, and we enjoy those mistakes. Do we learn from them?

MMH: Great question. We don’t necessarily need to learn from the mistake, although in some cases it may be quite beneficial. In the case of the goldfish pun, we don’t need to teach ourselves a lesson such as “it is better to be open-minded to the fact that tank in the context of fish might mean something other than fish-tank”. That would be a terrible lesson. Many of our first impressions, the conclusions we leap to, are the ones we would want to leap to. We draw those conclusions because they are the most likely interpretations. And that skill, in itself, serves us well in the bulk of our reasoning. What I suggest we actually learn from humor is the habit of thinking carefully, and double-checking things in our minds. The reward teaches us to be vigilant thinkers, and this helps us to reduce mistakes in the future and to generally curate our knowledge more cleanly.

JGR: Some people enjoy very stupid jokes while other people enjoy more elaborated humor. Is humor related to intelligence in some way?

MMH: I enjoy stupid humor among other kinds. I love watching people take falls, or even taking them myself. I giggle often about the simplest of stupidities in my everyday life. These kinds of things are often extra funny, in my opinion, because the confidence we have that we won’t make such mistakes is undermined by the fact that we actually make them.

Humor is definitely related to intelligence. As I’ve described it, it appears to be a factor that helps create and sustain the very kind of intelligence that we have. But there doesn’t seem to be a simple connection between how intellectual joke is, and how intelligent a person who enjoys it may be. Perhaps part of the reason is, as I pointed out before, that a well-developed joke potentially gives the audience many things to enjoy, not just mirth. And there is no accounting for taste, is there?

JGR: Do you know about labs focusing their research on humor?

MMH: There are a number of labs these days that are working in various ways on humor, and a few that focus solely on the topic. Some scientists have made a career of it. There are some people studying humor theories at the high level, attempting to adjudicate between theories based on whether people laugh at certain kinds of stimuli or not. And there are some labs looking for neural correlates of humor through fMRI, for instance. However, I tend not to keep a close pulse on this kind of work in general.

JGR: Is humor only human?

MMH: Those who have worked with great apes have reported getting the distinct sense that those creatures have some level of mirthfulness. Perhaps the trait exists in an even broader variety of animals. Laughter-like behaviors have been documented in other species like penguins. I don’t find it convincing that a species so different from us as penguins necessarily has true internal mirthfulness. Nor that it has the need to communicate that mirthfulness, nor that any such communication ought to be a signal that sounds anything like our own. I find it much more likely that what is called penguin laughter is more loosely akin to a cat’s purring than it is to our own laughter.

The trait ought to have evolutionary value to any animal that does a lot of thinking. But a possible trait’s potentially having value doesn’t mean that evolution has yet discovered how to give that trait to that animal. The major stumbling block in knowing whether other species have humor is that we can’t directly access or talk about those species’ feelings. We can try to experiment with non-verbal situations that we find humorous, and see if they get some unusual reaction from the other animals as well, but still it will be hard to tell if that reaction is tied to mirth, surprise, confusion, or some other kind of perception.

JGR: If you take a human after birth, put it in a human-size box far from other human beings and you observe him or her for years, do you think you will ever see traces of humor? In other words, does humor need to be social? Does it depend on language?

MMH: Another excellent yet hard to answer question. I’ve wondered this too. In fact, when writing Inside Jokes, I think I took, a little too strongly, the position that evolution had built the trait directly. At this point, I still think that that might be possible, but I am much more open to the alternative idea that evolution built a more general emotional system that has the ability to be guided by culture in learning to attach value to specific categories of content. In my opinion, that subject itself is an important avenue for future research in trying to understand how our minds and any minds might operate.

JGR: What is Inside jokes?

MMH: My way of seeing Inside Jokes is that it uses humor as a central example in the exploration of the more general notion that our processes of thinking are directed by our emotions. It explores the thesis that reasoning itself, often seen as the antithesis of emotion, is in fact a result of emotion. And it makes the case that, if we hope to understand and perhaps one day construct something that is like us, in the sense of, say, being intelligent enough to discuss one’s own place in the universe and so on, then that something will likely need to be built from the ground up as an emotional machine.

JGR: What exactly are you studying right now?

MMH: I intended for a while to study the processes of creativity and, in more detail, how the epistemic emotions might encourage creative thinking processes, and I held a particular interest in determining how we might build computational models of these processes. However, I became stymied in approaching that work by the deeper questions of, if we are to build artificial intelligence machines, what, or rather whose, goals will that creative intelligence serve?

So I shifted gears, roughly ten years ago now, and began to study the abstract and subjective notion of goal-directedness. What it is, and how it comes to arise, in an objective world. I hope to publish my work on this topic soon.

JGR: Do you have a general message you would like to share with the readers?

MMH: I think if any readers are interested in the topic of artificial intelligence, they’ve probably read tons of things about neural networks and machine learning. Maybe old-fashioned AI projects that involve search processes. Now is not the time to argue in detail for an alternative, but I want to tell the reader that there exists someone out here, who takes a fairly serious interest in artificial intelligence at the theory level, and yet who thinks that very little, if any, of the topics being studied in the modern field truly matter to understanding the subject.

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