By Helice Stratton (Bugle Team)
According to the 2011 film The Muppets, laughter is the third greatest gift ever (after children and ice cream). But where does laughter come from? Actually, this question isn’t quite right. Although laughter is the stereotypical response to humour, it’s estimated that we smile around five times more often than we laugh at humorous stimuli. In fact, laughter is arguably not even a universal response. In some African cultures it appears to be more a reaction to embarrassment or bewilderment. But, no matter how we react, it’s clear that there is some underlying cognitive process that is stimulated by hearing or seeing something funny.
Figuring out what this process is can be difficult because we can largely only deduce our cognitive functions by analysing their inputs and outputs. Theorists as far-back as Aristotle have attempted to categorise the different kinds of input. Their lists include satire, puns, slapstick; one even sees fit to separately categorise “vulgar dancing”. More modern theories try to be less descriptive, instead exploring what conditions a stimulus has to fulfil to be considered funny. The most widely argued-for theories in current literature are those of incongruity: humour must encode two separate and contrasting concepts which are not compatible. In other words, we find something funny when its outcome (the punchline) is completely unlike what we were lead to expect.
Sadly, analysing what makes humour funny ruins what makes humour funny. Humour analysis is a subject that has filled many very long books, so let’s focus on a specific kind: puns. In general, a pun will use a word like “meat/meet” which can have multiple very separate meanings. Multiple meanings alone is not enough though. By theory, in order for something to count as a pun, the speaker, listener or some other party must recognise it as one. In a pun, the meaning of the ambiguous word will at some point be switched, requiring the listener to revise her understanding of what was said. Automatically, she’ll attempt to find some logical situation in which both meanings can be true. This is often impossible, which leads to brief confusion and then recognition of the humour.
This is interesting as puns arguably have no practical application in language. They don’t communicate any information, they often aren’t truthful, and a lot of them cause more groans than laughter. In a sense they’re word play for its own sake, made not because they’re necessary but because we enjoy making them.
Humour can have its uses, however. It can act as a means of raising, discussing and confronting issues which may otherwise be perceived as uncomfortable or sensitive. A 2001 study into the use of humour in hospitals found that it was often used between patients and nurses to help cope with unpleasant or embarrassing situations. Books such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse 5, which focus on the madness of war, use humour to portray otherwise horrific settings. Frameworks like Cards Against Humanity encourage otherwise highly emotive topics to be cast in a sociable light. Humour such as this can be seen as an assertion of confidence, unity and even invincibility over situations of danger or stress.
In this form, humour is supposedly a way of avoiding any responsibility or negative repercussions that would be incurred by saying the same thing in seriousness. Most humour involves saying untruths, or otherwise exaggerating or altering the truth. This makes it an open violation of Grice’s maxim of quality: that one must not say what they do not believe to be true. Hence, speakers are avoiding making the views and beliefs they are joking about their own. This allows them to avoid the negative consequences for expressing such things.
There have been extensive efforts to prove that exposure to humour has positive long-term psychological effects, but conclusive evidence has yet to be found for this. However, there seem to be definite positive effects on the mental states of the elderly. A 1986 study looked into the effect of screening comedy films to the residents of a nursing home. It found that doing so improved the overall mood of those involved. Studies have also been carried out into the psychological effect of producing humour (being funny). A 2003 study argues that using positive, enhancing forms of humour which is aimed at strengthening yourself or your relationships with others without being damaging to outside parties can have positive psychological effects. However, using other forms of humour which involve genuinely making fun of yourself or others can equally negative psychological effects.
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