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YMIAFT Chapter 3 Part 6

The more or less you know

“The more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic.”

~ Søren Kierkegaard

Two of my best friends, Wayde and his wife Ann, had a daughter, Senna, during the time when I happened to be writing this. I was especially keen to find out when Senna laughed for the first time, which turned out to be around five months old. At what, we have no idea, since it seemed to come out of nowhere and was directed at nothing Wayde or Ann could discern. From then on, as experienced by Wayde and Ann, and also by other new parents I know, for the first few years, children find humour in what can seem to be completely random and arbitrary things. Senna laughed when she tried to grab a slice of apple. She laughed when raised up above a certain height. The rate at which children are absorbing information, all of which is fresh in their minds and creating lots of fresh new connections, makes the potential to find just about anything funny very high. Not everything, of course. Most learning is gradual, and some things are hard to figure out. Only when experiences meet just the right conditions will they be funny, it's just that children are a little more likely to find humour in things that have long since passed into mundane for us.

This is one of two essential states for a brain to be in that can lead to finding something funny, by not having a lot of well established networks related to life experiences. This condition is by no means restricted to children. We can all have new territory to explore for humour at any age and in any context. As I learned Japanese and lived in Japan, I often found things funny that Japanese people find simplistic. For me, in Japanese, new connections were being made in broad categories. As my Japanese language ability and cultural awareness expanded, potential humour needed more nuance to inspire me to laugh. This is what happens to all of us as as we gain more experience, whether generally in our lives or in any particular field we engage in. As we become immersed in our interests and world views, we become sophisticated in terms of the jokes related to those areas of our life.

Which leads to the second condition for getting jokes, which is when there is more material available to work with because of the depth of our knowledge. As our brains develop a robust network of neurons around a particular topic, it never completely finishes and closes off. There are always yet more connections to be made around the edges and filling out gaps. It gets more and more nuanced as understanding deepens. As immersion in a topic or perception increases, the potential to find humour within it increases, but the catch is that potential humour has to be more “clever”, or, more accurately, more specialized, in order to find connections that have not already been established.

The scope of this need for nuance as understanding deepens can not be overstated. It would be simplistic to think this only applies to the interests we consciously engage in. Our humour network weaves throughout our brain from the areas that cover basic intuitions and feelings up to the areas that facilitate our ability to engage in the furthest extent of our existentialist and metacontextual thinking. Not only does this mean you can find humour in moments in your life that stand outside of any particular category of interest, but that the flow of activity in your head is multidimensional to a degree that is difficult to encapsulate. You can perceive a concept from a wide perspective or narrow focus, an outside standpoint or intimately engaged, an intuitive distinction or intellectual categorization, or any other way a human brain can think. Further, there are no boundaries between our realms of cognition, meaning that our understanding of life in general could impact potential humour we get in a specific interest, and a specific interest could influence how we treat potential humour about life in general. The influences on what pathways in your mind will determine what you might find too close, too far, or funny, are infinitely recursive.

This is a large part of the reason why attempts to explain humour based on the content of jokes will ultimately fail. If you say humour is based on status, or “benign violation”, or any other understanding of how a joke is constructed or presented, then a human brain can understand that metacontext for the joke and become used to it in a way that fails to inspire the humour network. The details of the content matter less if the overarching idea is manifest in the brain by well established pathways. It's like playing a card game over and over. I may not know what hand I'll get dealt next, but I can still get tired of playing cards.

On the other hand, though, the multidimensional capacity of our thinking makes absolute declarations impossible. Some people might love playing cards and just about never get tired of it, because their emotional engagement with it helps them to create synaptic activity in more nuanced, subtle corners of the overall pattern. Nuanced and subtle corners that I'm not interested in exploring. They don't have to know more about cards, they only need to feel differently about it. Who we are is just as much a part of the context as is the context of the thing we are thinking about. Which means, presented with the same potential humour, we can have wildly different appreciations for it. This can lead to considerable divergence, even fights, between people about what is funny.

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