28 June 2008

The Humor Hypothesis

by Kate Melville

A new book, The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor, examines the mechanism and function of humor, identifying the reason humor is common to all human societies, its fundamental role in the evolution of homo sapiens and its continuing importance in the cognitive development of children.

"The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively it explains that humor occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter," explained author Alastair Clarke, a British science writer.

Clarke's investigation focuses on the basics of the humorous response, in contrast to previous theories that only ever applied to a small proportion of all instances of humor, many of them stipulating necessary content or social conditions either in the humor itself or around the individual experiencing it.

Clarke argues that it is not the content of the stimulus that makes us laugh, but the patterns underlying it that provide the potential for sources of humor. He identifies the importance of pattern recognition in human evolution and places humor squarely in that context. "An ability to recognize patterns instantly and unconsciously has proved a fundamental weapon in the cognitive arsenal of human beings. The development of pattern recognition as displayed in humor could also form the basis of humankind's instinctive linguistic ability. Syntax and grammar function in fundamental patterns for which a child has an innate facility. All that differs from one individual to the next is the content of those patterns in terms of vocabulary," he notes.

The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor also explores the correlation between the development of humor and the development of cognitive ability in infants. Clarke believes that childish games such as peek-a-boo, clap hands and tower block demolition all exhibit the precise mechanism of humor as it appears in any adult form. "Peek-a-boo can elicit a humorous response in infants as young as four months, and is, effectively, a simple process of surprise repetition, forming a clear, basic pattern. As the infant develops, the patterns in childish humor become more complex and compounded and attain spatial as well as temporal elements until, finally, the child begins to grapple with the patterns involved in linguistic humor," he explains.

Clarke offers two brief illustrations of the theory in instances of humor. A common form of humor is the juxtaposition of two pictures, normally of people, in whom we recognize a similarity. What we are witnessing here is spatial repetition, a simple two-term pattern featuring the outline or the features of the first repeated in those of the second. If the pattern is sufficiently convincing (as in the degree to which we perceive repetition), and we are surprised by recognizing it, we will find the stimulus amusing.

As a second example, he cites stand-up comedy which regularly features what he calls the "It's so true" form of humor. As with the first example, the brain recognizes a two-term pattern of repetition between the comedian's depiction and its retained mental image, and if the recognition is surprising, it will be found amusing. The individual may be surprised to hear such things being talked about in public, perhaps because they are taboo, or because the individual has never heard them being articulated before. The only difference between the two examples is that in the first the pattern is recognized between one photograph and the next, and in the second it occurs between the comedian's depiction and the mental image retained by the individual of the matter being portrayed.

According to Clarke, both these examples use simple patterns of exact repetition. "Pattern Recognition answers how and why we find things funny, but it cannot say categorically what is funny since no content can be inherently more or less funny than any other. The individual is of paramount importance in determining what they find amusing, bringing memories, associations, meta-meaning, disposition, their tendency to recognize patterns and their comprehension of similarity to the equation. But the theory does offer a vital answer as to why humor exists in every human society," Clarke concludes.

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