At the top of my list of favorite funny lines was a crack made by Michael Feldman on his radio show “Whaddya Know”. During the first Gulf war, he asked the audience if they’d heard of the new smart bombs--- that refused to drop. Immediately a cartoon like image formed in my mind of two bombs hanging below the plane looking at each other with a caption like ”No way. There are PEOPLE down there.”
The inner image is important to humor because so often a joke depends on a shift of context. We think of “Smart bombs” as technology that can better find it’s target, then the punch line shifts our attention to human smarts and knowing better than to want to hurt others. This crossover from what was expected stimulates dopamine. It gets our attention and reminds us we can be wrong in our assumptions. I find it interesting that our reward system encourages us to recognize our mistakes. Optical illusions also give us pleasure with contradictions in visual expectations. In the right context, watching a magic show or looking at a mural that fools us into thinking there’s a door, is pleasure from being fooled. It’s good for our survival to be reminded of our illusions.
One of the things that delighted me in Umberto Ecco’s novel “The Name of the Rose” was the discovery that the medieval monastery’s book of forbidden knowledge was Aristotle’s book on humor. The idea that rigid ideology most feared humor made wonderful sense since humor depends on contradictions, on shifting conceptual contexts and an irreverent attitude. It can break us loose from conditioned mindsets. Humor is the enemy of dogma.
The area in the front of the left hemisphere that’s triggered when making a joke is an area associated with optimism and happiness. Humor lightens the heart, stimulating endorphin production. Clearly evolutionary forces are encouraging it’s use.
Norman Cousins, in his book “Anatomy of an Illness” credited watching funny movies with pulling him through a serious illness. He actually checked out of the hospital and into a hotel and healed himself with the Marx Brothers. His book “Head First” was one of the first to compile the research showing connections between mental habits and attitudes to health. In a more recent book, “Mind Wide Open”, journalist Steven Johnson noted that laughter suppresses stress hormones and stimulates immune chemicals. Laughter even strengthens ability to remember. Joan Didion once wrote that one of the important factors in a long-term relationship was “finding the same things funny and the same things absurd”. A shared sense of humor is one place we can feel a deep connection to another. This sense of connection frees our thinking from bondage. The need to go along with the crowd is often based on the drive to connect with others and without a strong personal bond people seek refuge in unifying ideology.
Humor often needs no words at all. Early cartoons were pure visual events that were free from the constraints of reality in the crazy situations depicted and the exaggerated expressiveness of the characters. The New Yorker is famous for its cartoons.
The funny home videos shown on TV and You Tube depend on watching an unexpected visual twist. Laughing at ourselves can save us from exaggerated self-importance. So often it’s the brutal honesty of observational humor that allows us to see delusional personal patterns and we laugh with recognition. The imagery of humor is a powerful corrective that helps us see a truth that our ideation may have blocked.