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YMIAFT Chapter 2 Part 4

Maybe horses are funny

“Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world.”

~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

In 1998, while some doctors were doing some neurosurgery on a 16 year old girl to help her with epileptic seizures, they seemed to discover a “laugh button” on the front left side of the brain. When they stimulated this one area, the young girl would laugh. Testing further, “Whatever she was doing at the time she would attribute the laughter to that activity,” said Dr Itzhak Fried, the lead doctor in the operation. “If she was looking at a picture of a horse, she would say the horse was so funny.”

It's tempting to jump on this as being evidence that there is a specific humour section of the brain, and it's right there where Dr Fried was poking it. However, we already know from lots of other research under brain scanners that no single place consistently correlates with humour processing. If this spot that Dr Fried was poking was the humour centre, then surely it would have been a reliable feature in all the brain scanning that's been done on people laughing. Since it hasn't, though, we have to wonder, is there another way of thinking about this? One where we can account for no one specific part of the brain being being responsible for processing humour, yet at the same time be stimulated by poking a particular spot, as in the case of this one girl.

Dr Fried provides just such an alternative possibility by suggesting, “we just tapped into perhaps one area in a very complex network.” That network concept is key in linking the holistic to the specific. Instead of one elusive module somewhere, there is a humour network that is distributed all over the brain, and these doctors were rattling one part of it. Like tapping one edge of a spider web, which sends vibrations throughout the whole thing, alerting the spider to the presence of something in need of killing and eating. The web is the humour network and the spider is the laugh response.

This gives us the model we need to satisfy the dual nature of humour in that it has a general and non specific input with one specific output. The humour network weaves throughout the brain, and because of its distributed and pervasive nature, it can be involved in just about any kind of thought. That allows for humour to have a relationship with everything the human mind can think of, which is anything. On the other end, all roads lead to Rome, in that the network ultimately connects down to some place in the motor cortex, where it triggers the response that is the same among all humans, laughter.

Now we know that a laugh response can be triggered more or less anywhere in the brain, but what is this network made of, and what exactly triggers it?

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