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YMIAFT Chapter 2 Part 9

Dam that's funny

“It is easy to forget that the most important aspect of comedy, after all, its great saving grace, is its ambiguity. You can simultaneously laugh at a situation, and take it seriously.”

~ Stephen Fry

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How exactly could a humour network determine if the activity flowing around the pathways of your brain had just been through weak connections or strong connections? In the case of potential humour being too far, it's easy to see how the humour network would not pick up any activity worth noting. Too far means the signal heads down to dead ends where there are no connections, and so the signal stops before the humour network has a chance to evaluate it. In the other two cases, though, too close or “just right”, there has to be some kind of qualitative difference between a signal that had just passed through a set of weak synaptic connections, and a signal that had flowed through strong ones.

Imagine a flowing river, with a dam at one end of it. The dam has a gateway on it to allow some of the water to pass through. Open the gateway wide, and a powerful stream of water comes blasting through. Close the gateway down to the point where it's only open a little, and only a small trickle of water passes through. If you put some kind of sensor on the side of the dam where the water comes out, you could determine the degree to which the gate was open from the speed and pressure of the water coming out of it. Similarly, as signals travel around the brain they can be strong or weak, depending on how many neurons are involved. However, just knowing the strength of a signal is not enough. How would the humour network differentiate between a strong signal that had come to it via one huge strongly bound connection somewhere upstream or a strong signal that had come through a whole bunch of little connections that add up to a big signal? Either way, you have this strong current flowing by, so what's the difference?

Imagine the dam again, but instead of just one big gate to let water through, imagine lots of tiny portals. When a sudden wave of water slams against the wall of the dam on one side and pushes through the portals, it comes through the other side as a fine mist. A fast moving spray instead of a stream. That's a qualitative difference in the type of flow, and it's the analogue to what I think the humour network is listening for.

Both strength and quality, mist or stream, matter for the humour network. The threshold of laughter is not a binary, on or off, thing. As we know in life, laughter can range from a slightly amused smirk up to uncontrollable hysterical laughter. In terms of the dam analogy, a few droplets is not very interesting. A thick spray rushing by indicates something big is going on. In this way, the degree of laughter response could be correlated to the amount of weak synapses activated. If we were to graph the potential for triggering the humour network, on the low end we would have a level of constant activity where the laugh centre had no response at all. After all, at any one moment there are always at least some weak synapses being activated, part of the constant random feeling around that neurons do. Above a certain minimum threshold, we would have a gradient of transition. With more collective weak synaptic activity, the laughter response increases. Graphed over time, there would be a constant “noise” of connections being activated as part of the normal operations of your brain, and every now and again there would be spikes that reach up into the laughter zone. The higher the spike, the bigger the response.

It might seem that once the water has rushed up to the dam, splashed through, and created a mist that activated the sensor, that we have at that moment completed a particular sequence of events. This correlates with a common concept of potential humour, particularly with deliberate jokes, that they are a distinct type of thought, with quantifiable boundaries. In our day to day experience, not just jokes, but lots of concepts seem to complete themselves, coming to identifiable conclusions that we can draw lines around. It seems perfectly logical to think of “two plus two equals...” as an incomplete notion, leaving your brain hanging, and then when we get to “... four”, the concept has come to an end. It seems distinct, quantifiable, and self contained. That's a logical and useful way to look at what a math equation is. However, when we're looking at how concepts are physically running around inside your brain, the activity that contained the notion of “2 + 2 = 4” did not stop just because the way we describe it came to a conclusion. That flow just kept on trucking along, zipping through your mental network, morphing into the next thought without any distinct division between one thought and the next. There are no discreet and quantifiable units of activity that divide or quantify whole thoughts. If you had stopped before saying “4”, your brain wouldn't seize up, it would just flow into other thoughts without missing a beat. We're fundamentally analogue, not digital.

Returning to the metaphor of flowing water, let's now take the dam out of the river. Instead, we have a tumultuous river with white water rapids. Constantly in motion, constantly swirling. Lots of the movement is just straightforward, part of the usual activity. As currents and eddies move around in within each other, they sometimes splash and create white water and spray above the surface. Our sensor is now a mesh of crisscrossed wires, like a net hanging just above the surface of the river. Most of the time the water doesn't spray high enough to touch it, but a big enough splash of water can. That's the most accurate analogy to how the humour network is operating. The humour network is not looking for anything to be complete, the river of thoughts underneath just keeps flowing. Every time a large white water splash happens, wherever and whenever it is, the humour network registers it and sends a signal to the laugh centre for a response.

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