Jul 06

The Science of Humor: “Ha!” by Scott Weems

Although the science of humor has always held special appeal to me, much of the research is dry. Not that it’s supposed to be funny, but come on.

But the book Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why (2014) by cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, PhD, is among the better resources.

An excerpt from the review by Publishers Weekly:

Weems examines various categories of humor and what they say about human thought and behavior, including ‘gallows humor,’ ‘lawyer jokes,’ and meta-humor. He tackles the ‘Are women less funny than men?’ controversy, notes a study that revealed the tangible negative impact of sexist jokes, outlines personality traits that supposedly contribute to a person’s funniness, ponders why computers can’t master humor, and investigates how comedic timing operates.

More science of humor from Kirkus Reviews:

Both humor and problem-solving require insight, creativity, psychological health and intelligence; in fact, writes Weems, ‘the smarter we are, the more likely we are to share a good joke.’ Surprise is essential in humor. We laugh at a story that abruptly reveals an incongruity, but this requires a mature brain with vast experience of the world and one that works obsessively to find patterns in the messy, ambiguous information that bombards it. Young children and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders often cannot tell a joke from a lie.

A GoodReads reviewer states some “fun conclusions” in Ha! that he appreciated:

…Common sense walks, humor dances…A humorous attitude signifies an engaged mind…People who are quick to laugh are quick to forget stressful experiences…Because the human brain can hold two or more opposing ideas at the same, it often resolves the apparent conflicts with humor, which recognizes the incongruities…Humor is a psychological coping mechanism for a life full of absurdities and ambiguities.

British researcher Richard Wiseman, Weems tells us, analyzed the responses of tons of people to many different examples of humor. Weems explains some results (The Huffington Post):

Of the thousands of jokes analyzed in Wiseman’s study, the ones rated highest by everybody included some shock or surprise, but not so much that they became the centerpiece of the joke. More important was a sense of false expectations being overturned. My personal favorite involved two ducks sitting on a pond. One of the ducks says, ‘Quack.’ The other quickly responds, ‘I was going to say that!’ It’s hard to be offended by that.

What did Wiseman’s science determine was the funniest joke in the world? (Keep in mind that not everyone will agree.)

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He’s not breathing and his eyes are glazed, so his friend calls 911. ‘My friend is dead! What should I do?’ The operator replies, ‘Calm down, sir. I can help. First make sure that he’s dead.’ There’s a silence, then a loud bang. Back on the phone, the guy says, ‘Ok, now what?’

What makes you a funny person? States Weems: “When we refer to someone as having a humorous personality, what we mean is that this person sees the ambiguity, confusion, and strife inherent in life and turns them into pleasure.”