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Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind (MIT Press) Paperback – February 8, 2013
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Ever since Plato (who thought we laugh at vice), thinkers as serious as Kant and Freud have put forth theories of our giggles and guffaws. Hurley, Dennett, and Adams go at the problem with the ingenuity of first-rate scientists and the timing of first-rate comics. Not only do they have the riches of evolutionary psychology from which to draw, but they're even funnier than Hegel.(Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction)
The deft use of humor can win a mate, persuade an audience, or make a tyrant quake in his jackboots. Yet no one really understands why the human brain should respond so forcefully to that cocktail of anomaly, indignity, and rhythmic vocalization we call a joke. Hurley, Dennett, and Adams offer a sophisticated analysis of this important phenomenon using high standards of evolutionary explanation -- and no, it is not a turgid academic disquisition, but written with clarity, good cheer, and, of course, wit.(Steven Pinker, author of How The Mind Works)
[O]ne of the most complex and sophisticated humor theories ever presented.... The authors should be lauded for their thought-provoking and original work.(Evolutionary Psychology)
The theory [the authors] elaborate is a detailed and sophisticated descendant of incongruity theories.... The learned and even-handed stance adopted by [them] regarding problem cases is... upbeat: they regard their theory as a provisional staging post, and a prompt to further empirical enquiry into these open-ended issues. On balance, that is probably the right attitude to take.(The Times Literary Supplement)
Inside Jokes is the most persuasive theory of humor in the centuries that scientists have been trying to explain why we crack up. Extra bonus: unlike most such research, which is about as funny as a root canal, Hurley's analysis is -- and I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb here -- the funniest thing the MIT Press... has ever published (in a good way).(Sharon Begley The Daily Beast)
Science advances by asking new questions, and Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams raise a lot of them.... Some of these questions have been asked before, but no previous attempt succeeds in answering so many so well.(Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Science)
Hurley and his crew cross the road to not just explain a joke, but explain all jokes. Before this book the only comedy that had been peer reviewed and replicated in double-blind experiments was the theory that there's nothing funnier than a smoking monkey. I'm so glad smart people outside of comedy are taking comedy seriously.(Penn Jillette of "Penn & Teller")
MIT Press has come up with a page-turner, a book you can't put down. That is no joke! The authors have dissected the mental state of humor and, instead of dismissing it, instill awe about the beauty of the evolved human mind. Humor at its various levels cleans up our act and plays a magnificent role in making us who we are.(Michael Gazzaniga, Director, Sage Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara)
What's so funny about a robot with a sense of humor? In this highly original analysis, Hurley, Dennett, and Adams try to locate the holy grail, the essence of a joke, by using a variety of tools (from computer science, cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy, and even evolutionary psychology) to dissect why we laugh. This powerful team of authors goes a long way to explain why and when we laugh, and in doing so uncover insights about how the mind works. But like the proverbial millipede who, trying to analyze how he lifts each of his legs in the precise sequence, starts tripping over, readers should beware that getting inside a joke risks dehumorizing it!(Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University)
About the Author
Matthew M. Hurley is researching emotions and creativity under Douglas R. Hofstadter at the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University. Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. He is the author of Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2005, 2006) and other books. Reginald B. Adams, Jr., is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Penn State University.
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However, the book is not a very easy read. But its original and thorough explanation of humor weigh up for it. Humor has been discussed by many thinkers throughout history, and this book is the most complete attempt at explaining it yet.
Numerous jokes are interspersed throughout the book. Some are good, some less good and a few horrible. Most are new but some are as old as the hills. For the most part, they serve an explanatory purpose. Some are apt, particularly this one, which is at the heading of the final chapter:
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who require closure
That joke works so well not only because it's funny but because it highlights how our brains work in the presence of incomplete information. We are Closure Machines. We leap to complete things even in the presence of unfinished data. And that's the background for Hurley et al.'s theory of how humor works in the brain and why a sense of humor is there. Humor is, to borrow Stephen Jay Gould's term, a spandrel: a device thrown up during our long evolution to humanhood to serve another purpose and now left over to function on its own. In this case, the original purpose was to provide reward to us as we sifted through belief commitments we had previously made to see if they held up in the light of subsequent knowledge. It's a reward for a time-consuming and sometimes difficult cognitive behavior. In general, it is to our advantage to leap to conclusions even if the information isn't all in yet: we use less computational energy and space doing things that way and move to reaction quicker (which may mean our survival). But we clutter our brains with a lot of wrong knowledge which may need to be weeded out later.
Our sense of humor evolved out of the pleasure reaction we got when we took on that work of weeding and it is linked to our awareness of incongruity. Out of that flows a lot of knowledge about the nature of humor and of jokes. I won't go into it but it makes interesting reading. Think of how jokes make you reframe assumptions you make as the joke is being told. Like this one:
What did the 0 say to the 8?
Now you see what reframing entails. Part of it is throwing out no longer valid conclusions you tentatively accepted earlier in the joke. Your reward for doing it is the laugh you gave when you finally figured out the joke.
(A) Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you've got a mile head start, and they're barefoot.
(B) Before you criticize someone, you should (as we say metaphorically) walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you've got a mile head start, and they're barefoot.
Their point is that when the false expectation is OVERTLY introduced into a mental space, the joke is ruined. But I'm not sure HOW overtly Prof. Hauser built his expectation. One of the authors, Prof. Dennett, is THE world renown scholar on consciousness, everyone may automatically (without self-awareness) expects that his talk will be on consciousness (he published the famous book "Consciousness Explained").
The methodology they employ is very scientific and persuasive. But I confess the joy of reading this book mostly came from the jokes themselves.
The writing is perpetually cautious, hedging bets against future research and at times tedious in telling the reader what will be discussed later in the book. To put it plainly, I prefer a more ballsy style, even in scientific writing.
Reading this was like mining- it delivers, but there is work in stripping away repetitive point-making. At the end of the day, a solid valid study, but not a work that will bear rereading.
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