What makes an April Fools' prank hilarious? A cognitive scientist's (actually funny) new book shows how the brain breaks down the elements of a joke and why we laugh. Sharon Begley reports.
If you don’t care about damage to your reputation, career, or marriage, there is no shortage of April Fools' Day pranks you can pull... . While reasonable people can debate whether the results are hilarious or sophomoric, chances are a disinterested observer would at least crack a smile. Cognitive scientist Matthew Hurley of Indiana University wanted to know why.
The result, as laid out in a new book, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, 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 (home of Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice and Edge-Based Clausal Syntax) has ever published (in a good way).
...Inside Jokes argues that mirth (the feeling we experience when we encounter humor) arises when the brain realizes that an assumption it has committed to is flat-out wrong.
That sounds simplistic, so here’s the long version: The brain constantly generates presumptions about what will happen next. ... In short, the brain “produc[es] real-time anticipation on all important topics,” argue the authors, as it generates myriads of possible futures, and also fills in details about ambiguous situations in the present—both of which are crucial to functioning in a world of imperfect and incomplete information.
Click to read the rest of "The Neuroscience of Humor" (The Daily Beast).
Note: A not-so-positive review of the book Inside Jokes: "Can Neuroscience Explain Humor?" (Wall Street Journal blogs).