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YMIAFT Chapter 3 Part 2

Don't Stand So Close To Me

“A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.”

~ John Cleese

“Waaaaaiiit a second,” I hear you saying. “If humour is there to help us form close bonds, then what's with all this too close and too far business? If we wanted to validate people who were part of our in-group, wouldn't the humour response be more effective if it signalled us when we were dealing with people that hit a bullseye with us in terms of thinking like we do? In other words, why would there ever be a too close condition?”

You ask the best questions, and this is one of my favourites, because it's a really interesting point. Let's consider for a moment the results of a system that did respond with a pleasurable sensation and vocal verification that you and the person you were interacting with were right on the same page. In physical terms, this means it's not the activation of weak connections that stimulates the humour network, it's the activation of the strongest connections, the ones where the synapses are firmly bound up in tight bundles.

It's no exaggeration to say that such a system would literally take you nowhere. Your thought patterns that you already share with the people you know would just strengthen and strengthen, and new configurations within your brain wouldn't have the same value. I wouldn't go so far as to say there would be no new learning or new ideas. Humour isn't about learning information, or verifying what's true, it's just about relating to people by sharing ideas. The ideas you share can be factually false, but at least you know you're in the loop. Also, humour aside, there would still be ways in which to learn new things. New facts and new ways of doing things would still have the benefit of potentially helping humans survive better and be passed along. It's just that if the humour network responded to the strongest connections, all the fun of laughter would be constrained to repetition of what's been done before. There's nothing that special about knowing how to cope with unchanging circumstances. Every animal that has not already been made extinct by going up in flames already knows that fire burns and is best avoided. Verifying that over and over would be pointless.

Humans do better because of our ability to cope with changing circumstances, new environments, and different contexts. A system that responded to ideas that were too close would only be sharing and reinforcing known ideas. In that case, in the forests of our primitive ancestry, what you found funny would be repetitious, never changing, and shared within a tight group of people that just about never varied. A situation like that might even generate too much conflict.

Research by Nancy Bell, a professor at Washington State University, demonstrated that we are harsher on people we are closer to than people we don't know so well when they tell us something that fails to make us laugh. When a stranger tries and fails to make you laugh, you merely don't laugh and don't think much of it. When someone you love tries and fails to make you laugh, you feel slighted that they don't know you as well as they should. Put into a context where humour drew hard lines between people who didn't think exactly alike, there would be a lot of potential for intergroup conflict, and even less ability to accept new members or assimilate with other groups.

Adaptability is good, rigidity is bad. With a humour system that operates within a sweet spot of not too close and not too far, you can expand your social networks by bringing in people who might be like you. Laughter is an opportunity offered to everyone in the group to include themselves. With the potential to respond to ideas that are further out from the norm, the opportunity for expansion is that much greater.

Not too much further from the norm, though. For the other extreme, of a laughter response system that was wired to respond to concepts that were too far, I doubt much explanation is necessary to see the problems. You can easily see that such a system would pull social cohesion apart, by making us only enjoy humour with people who had wildly different ideas about everything. As we merrily went along with people who behaved in ways totally alien to us, our group would become a rogues gallery of wildly different points of view, disagreeing over everything while laughing about it. If consensus could somehow happen in those circumstances, no one would appreciate it.

Evolution seems to have optimized the system to allow us to appreciate ideas that help us expand our thoughts while expanding our social group, but not get crazy with ideas that are bizarre to us. Not too much, and not too little. It requires constant calibration, always fuzzy around the boundaries, so it's not perfect or free from error, but it worked well enough that we all have it.

The point can't be stressed enough, though, that the wonderful benefits of group cohesion that humour might have given us in our evolutionary past are now distorted almost beyond recognition in our modern context. So much so that we shouldn't be looking too hard for examples of the evolutionary purpose in much of how humour, and especially comedy, is experienced these days. A comedian on stage is not bonding with you, not necessarily presenting ideas that are useful, not sharing a world view in order to validate anyone's idea, or anything like that. Comedy is to humour what porn is to lust, what horror movies are to fear, and what love songs are to love. Evocative and reminiscent of the feelings that we are biologically wired to have, but taken to extremes that deviate far from the goals those feelings pursue. Further, the craft of comedy feeds back into our expectations of what humour is in our daily lives, distorting our expectation of what humour can and should do for us that much more.

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