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Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


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Let's talk about humor

What is humor to you? How important is it in your life? How many kinds of it you came across? And lastly, what is that 'cultural' sense of humor?
I am asking because I have seen people requiring to explain it to others.


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    Nov 27 2013: Humour seems to me to be one of the true ineffable human capacities. I'm going out on a limb here by specifying it as a uniquely human capacity; if for no other reason than the fact that, while I love my dog, and he demonstrates something which could be identified as affection for me, we're never really going to share a joke.

    Should the zombie invasion begin, one way to tell if your best mate has been "zombified" would be to try and make him/her laugh. I believe there is no real way to convincingly manufacture that shared experience, that shared recognition of the other's humanity.

    I accept that everyone doesn't share the same sense of humour, in that I may find something funny when you do not. I do however think that we always recognise the authenticity of another human being's laughter, even if we don't share in it.

    One of the truest things I ever heard about humour (sorry, no idea of the source), was that it represented an "affectionate communication of insight". A communication which seems lies at the very root of our humanity.
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      Nov 28 2013: Thank you Stephen.
      It is interesting to check how humor figures in all important areas of human communication like intrapersonal, interpersonal, group dynamics or organizational. Science, Economics, Politics are supposed to make use of it. It may also be very interesting to examine how so many commenters here use it as an effective basis of communication.
      While interacting with someone, humor is necessary to make us realize that we are just not Turing machines.
    • Nov 28 2013: Stephen

      I must disagree with your claim to uniqueness of human humor. Studies have shown that dogs, rats, monkeys, apes... all have both laughter and humor. The areas of the brain activated by humor are very deep, which also means very old... as the brain evolved in layers. language centers are comparatively young.

      Personally I think dogs get a good fart joke, probably better than we do. And more often.

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        Nov 28 2013: Hi Ian,

        This is a very interesting train of thought, and one which I'd considered but obviously only superficially. After a quick google search, I could find studies linking animal "laughter" mechanisms to play, physical stimulation (tickling) and as a social bonding mechanism; I couldn't find anything which linked this response to something we would recognise as "humour".

        I guess the distinction I'm making is that a physical response to play and physical stimulation, "laughter" if you will, does not imply an appreciation of what we recognise/define as humour.

        I did find a study by a Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, who studied laughter across the species. He noted that outside of humanity It is actually a social behavior unrelated to jokes or wit. It serves different purposes. It can be friendly or submissive, hostile or dominant. Witness the old distinction between laughing with and laughing at someone.

        It may be that from an evolutionary perspective the facilities/behaviours are linked, but I still feel that "laughter" in animals can't really be attributed to humour per se.

        I've no axe to grind though, and am happy to be persuaded otherwise. Do you have specific sources I could look up?

        • Dec 1 2013: Stephen

          I recall a reference to Koko playing jokes on her trainers, both physical and verbal... though I suppose that you could contend that these were learned rather than innate behaviors. I wonder at that though, you could teach someone a joke, even train a parrot to tell one, but Koko would create her own funny situations, play tricks and laugh at her human caretakers. That seems to say the method was learned, while the motivation was innate.

          My friends lab would hid the ball and then beg to play fetch. When the ball was found it was apparent the pup was having us on all along.

          Dr. Johnathan Balcombe has some interesting observations you should be able to research easily, but I must grant that he comes to no firm conclusion on the subject. Simply put, it is impossible to know the inner life of an animal. You can always evade the humor conclusion by asserting that the observer is anthropomorphizing to some extent.

          That being said, Dolphins have been recorded stealthily approaching pelicans so they can nip away a few tail feathers, or repeatedly rolling turtles over and over, which seems like pranks to me. Similarly, elephants have been recorded by researchers as playing jokes on one another, and on the researchers themselves.

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        Nov 28 2013: Interesting claim Ian. But don't you think humor (and jokes too) fails much more frequently than sexual innuendos? If what you are saying is correct, how would you explain that?
        Also, do you think all laughter is humor?
        • Dec 1 2013: Pabitra,

          I am not sure that I understand your question... But I think you are asking that if humor is so deep seated in the brain why does it so often, ( more so than sexual innuendo), fall on deaf ears. Is this correct?

          I would say that humor is an inbuilt response to simple stimuli, common to all humanity, that has been co-opted and adapted to our changing brain-scape as we have evolved. All babies think peek-a-boo is just hilarious, which shows that humor is not taught, it is innate. Exactly what we find funny may be trained by culture and environment, even influenced by character, but it starts from a common base. When my daughter heard winnie-the-pooh's name for the first time she could not stop laughing.

          Thus I would say the simpler the joke, (man slips on banana), the more likely we are all to find it funny, (had we not been jaded by the media storm of the most recent generation anyway). The more complex the concept, or culturally specific, the less likely the joke will be well received by all who hear it.

          Also, a certain mood, and mind set is necessary to both tell, and to hear, a joke. What I may find funny alone with my wife may not be funny at the movie theater, or in company with strangers. This is true of sexual innuendo as well, it is better received in the proper context.

          As to laughter. I believe all laughter is humor as much as I believe that all smiles are happy. No, to often laughing is a social escape or other coping behavior.

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        Dec 1 2013: Thanks Ian,

        You've opened a whole new can of worms in my head. I'll have a look for the references you cite and see where that takes me.

        Best Wishes

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