Humor is an emotion, which identifies, records and sustains a tension releasing event. Whether it is slapstick, ironic, aggressive, or self effacing, humor highlights the demolition of a faulty nervous perception. Conflict, loss of territory, or unfamiliar events ceaselessly imply a potential for pain. Beginning with an acknowledged reason for tension, humor is triggered with the surprise discovery that the reason is false. One frontal lobe identifies a reason for tension, while the other lobe discovers the reasoning error. Intuition, a pattern recognition algorithm, triggers humor at this instant shift of system viewpoint from a tense state to a relaxed one. Both hemispheres confirm the reasons for the release of tension.
Humor triggers tension releasing responses including laughter. Laughter can occur in many emotional contexts. It can accompany joy, affection, amusement, cheerfulness, surprise, nervousness, sadness, fear, shame, aggression, triumph, taunt and in the pleasure from another's misfortune (schadenfreude). Humor refers to joyful laughter. Peek-a-boo can elicit a humorous response in four month old infants and involves a tense search ending with a pleasant surprise – a two stage process. This theory of humor presumes the ability of the prefrontal regions of the two hemispheres of the brain to independently make two distinct interpretations of the environment.
A Theory of Humor - Functional Regions
This website posits the existence of such brain regions with the ability to learn, remember, recognize, and transmit information about specific functions. In 2004, a Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery that the olfactory system recognizes smells by recognizing a combinatorial code in the firing combinations of its smell receptors. Through its combinatorial memories, this brain region remembers and recognizes the subtle differences between millions of smells. It evaluates air molecules and sends combinatorial signals, indicating recognition of, say, the smell of an orange. Those symbols are recognized by other networks in the nervous system.
The olfactory system is a functional network, focused completely on the recognition of smells. Major functional regions include those which make emotional interpretations of events. At the highest level, the prefrontal regions make logical interpretation of events based on an evaluation of the global information available to the system. One of the two hemispheres makes a broadly logical view of the environment and the other, a negative emotional view.
A Theory of Humor - Two Different Viewpoints
The two cerebral hemispheres exhibit bilateral symmetry in both structure and function. Both have the ability to manage the system. If even an entire hemisphere, is either injured or destroyed, its functions can be assumed by the other hemisphere. But, at the highest levels of pattern recognition, each hemisphere is functionally specialized in vertebrates including fish, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals. The left hemisphere is specialized to logically categorize information, which is useful for routine everyday behavior. The right hemisphere handles responses to novel events and emotional behaviors in emergencies. This structural distinction causes the brain to evaluate the environment simultaneously from two radically different viewpoints.
A Theory of Humor - The Routine & The Unexpected
There were evolutionary benefits in the specialization of functions between the two hemispheres. Such benefits were demonstrated in the comparison studies of the survival behaviors of lateralized and non-lateralized chicks. Those chicks, which were lateralized (through early exposure to light) could pick seeds out of pebbles on the ground with one eye and one half of the brain, while using the other eye and other half of their brain to monitor the skies for predators. The non-lateralized chicks could not complete the two tasks simultaneously. The left hemisphere evaluates routine behaviors, while the right hemisphere evaluates threats in the environment. The two hemispheres of the brain operate in parallel, recognizing patterns in the environment from two different viewpoints.
A Theory of Humor - The Pattern Recognition Mechanism
Humor triggers laughter. Consciously willed laughter is triggered from the premotor regions. Spontaneous humor is triggered by a single instantaneous intuitive decision, following a global evaluation of an event by the two frontal lobes. The resulting signals of a tension releasing result of this evaluation are detected by the amygdala, which initiates the neural signals, which lead to involuntary amused laughter. It is the amygdala, which detects signals, which trigger anger and fear as well as a range of social emotions, including guilt and shame. The laughter signals from the amygdala are modulated by several motor regions. The cerebellum finally manages the intensity and duration of laughter in the social and emotional context.
A Theory of Humor - Emotions Use Algorithms
Humor is an emotion. Nature utilizes emotions to precisely control animal behavior to achieve specific survival objectives. When an emotion takes control of the system, complex algorithms modify system parameters and influence behaviors. Typically, the love emotion makes an animal act to protect its loved one. In a typical behavior response, love makes a person patient.
Prof. Schultz discovered the algorithmic processes, which lead to patience. He found that the nervous system accurately estimates the time it will take for a task to be completed. For this precise period, it sends, simultaneously, dopamine surges to the forebrain and inhibitive messages to the amygdala. These neural responses gives a person patience – the energy to complete a task, while suppressing the emotions of anger, irritability, jealousy and rudeness. Evidently, when love makes a person patient, this algorithm extends the estimated time subconsciously allowed to a loved one to complete a task.
Just as with love, complex algorithms decide the triggering points for humor. Other algorithms manage the habitual motor actions triggered by laughter. Humor is an emotion designed to identify events, which release tension and to record such events into memory. A variety of algorithms decide the trigger points for humor.
A Theory of Humor - Remembering False Threats
Humor may have originated from an emotion, which enables a herd to evaluate and remember false alarms. Even as young animals play with each other in a herd, a single animal, which detects a predator, becomes tense. The mirror neuron systems (MNS) in its neighbors detect and spread this tension throughout the herd, without alerting the predator. A removal of the threat releases the tension, which is also sensed by the herd. The tension releasing mechanism prevents panic and returns the herd with equal speed to relaxation and play.
Primates and humans evolved to be able to evaluate the more subtle reasons for tension and to anticipate them better. Since many threats were false, humor developed as a wise emotion, which instantly released tension, on recognition of a false threat. The emotion triggered the laughter mechanism and recorded the event into herd memory, helping to avoid the repetition of false alarms. Research has noted the similarity in forms of laughter among humans and apes when tickled, suggesting that laughter derived from a common origin among primate species, and has subsequently evolved prior to the origin of humans. So although nonhuman primates laugh, human humor seems also to involve more specialized cognitive networks that are unshared by other species.
Humor brings instantaneous and infectious responses to a faulty evaluation of threat. The left hemisphere, which evaluates routine behaviors, is activated by positive emotions, while the right hemisphere, which evaluates threats in the environment, is activated by stressful situations. Humor is triggered, when the more negative right lobes recognize the situation to be free of stress and the left lobes uncover the faulty logic, which initiated the stress. The left lobe takes over and the right lobe becomes subdued. It is known that damage to the right frontal lobe stops its inhibitive effect, causing patients to demonstrate inappropriate euphoria and to see nonhumorous situations as being funny. With myriad reasons for tension, the surprise discovery of a false reason triggers the humor emotion. Both hemispheres need to confirm the reasons for release of tension.
A Theory of Humor - Causes For Tension
Humor occurs with a release of tension. Such tension exists at an existential level. The territorial instinct developed to protect a territory as a safe sanctuary for raising the young. With evolution, such territories came to include ethnic boundaries, or political or religious beliefs. Tensions exist with physical threats, competitive threats and threats to social wellbeing, or pride. Events, which ridicule such threats trigger laughter and release tension.
The potential for pain causes tension in slapstick comedy. The actors are punished painfully, but appear to be only mildly affected. It is not funny if a person is knocked unconscious. It is funny, if he gets up and walks away with an exaggerated limp. The tension of the blow is relieved by the absurd response of the victim. In self deprecating humor, a person indicates that he is not as aggressive, evil, or powerful as is perceived. Racial humor suggests that certain races pose no threat. A search for a solution to a puzzle generates tension. “Why do cows wear bells? Their horns don’t work.” A surprise answer releases it.
A Theory of Humor - Absurdity Helps
Absurd solutions begin with confusion and end with a release of tension. Absurdity alone triggers humor. According to Chaplin, “ I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large ... I added a small mustache...” Chaplin's success lay in his ability to convince both hemispheres that his absurd misadventures were sincere, but misguided. When he bumped into a tree and then lifted his hat to the tree in apology, his innate courtesy added to his credibility and absurdity completed the picture. Research has established that the MNS enables a person to know he intentions of another. Lesser actors, who imitated Chaplin's scenes, failed. The MNS of the audience sensed the anxiety of such actors to please the audience, discounting the sincerity of their absurd actions.
A Theory of Humor - Other Humor Triggers
Just as it makes a yawn infectious, MNS causes people to share laughter. When everyone is relaxed, it becomes easier to laugh at false threats. A cheerful person, who “laughs at life,” opens interactions with a tension free view of life. In such a context, laughter is triggered for even trivial causes. People, who are open and sharing create an empathic situation, where shared laughter may help to release tension. A sarcastic remark can be painful to the victim, but provides a relief of tension for his opponent. Self deprecating humor suggests that the threat is not as fearsome as is imagined. Dry deadpan humor presents surprise reasons, why the threat is false. Highbrow humor suggests erudite reasons why a threat is false. Bathroom humor suggests that social propriety is no threat. Both music and works of art can present humor through such tension releasing contexts.
A Theory of Humor - When Humor Falls Flat
Surprise is a triggering element for humor. The MNS anticipates the behavior of others. It replicates the neural activity within the brain, imitating the physical actions as well as the feelings and emotions of the people they observe. MNS grants the two hemispheres an accurate view of the anticipated behavior of others. So the surprise has to be genuine.
The somatosensory cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex respond with laughter to a surprise receipt of pleasant information, such as a tickling sensation. But, if you tickle yourself, there is no laughter response, because there is no surprise. The cerebellum manages the habitual motor actions involved in self-tickling. It informs the system that the self-tickling sensation is to be expected, killing the surprise. When someone else tickles you, those regions respond with laughter, since the stimulus is unexpected. With their high level pattern recognition of all such network activity by the prefrontal hemispheres, even microscopically small discrepancies can cause humor to fall flat.
This page was last updated on 09-Sep-2016.
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