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Laughter, 2002/03/01:21:51

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Some Background on Laughter and Humor

There is no entry for Laughter in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, although there is one for Laughing Gas. The only entry in the index refers the reader to the article on humor. Initially I found this very strange.

But having read the article under the Humor entry, I think I now understand why there is no entry or index cross-referencing on laughter. It's because people, most especially the psychological community, are extremely confused about it, and would rather not deal with it, if indeed it ever comes up for them as an issue at all. In fact, judging by the very strange things that the author of the Humor article says and the even stranger things that the researchers he quotes are saying, it would surprise me greatly if any of them ever laugh. Let me draw a distinction, using my own terminology.

There is a difference between genuine laughter, and contrived laughter. Genuine laughter may be recognized in one of two main ways: (1) the character of the response, and (2) the circumstances under which the response occurs.

How to tell by character? You are witnessing genuine laughter if it is largely uncontrollable. The person who is experiencing genuine laughter seems to be out of control to a certain extent, unable to stop laughing voluntarily. If you never or rarely laugh yourself, or think there is something forbidden or problematic about it, it may be just as easy or easier for you to recognize genuine laughter in other people, rather than in yourself. But most people can at least dimly remember a rare time when they couldn't control their own laughter. If you are having trouble understanding what I mean, try watching "Whose Line Is It Anyway"? Drew Carey, the host, almost invariably collapses on his desk at some point in the show, tears streaming from his eyes. Listen to the sound of his laughter. That's what genuine laughter sounds like. Or, if you are old enough to remember "The Carol Burnett Show," you will have seen Harvey Corman and Tim O'Connor attempting to control their genuine laughter in the middle of a rehearsed skit; they frequently have to turn away from the audience to hide laughter that is leaking out anyway. The secondary symptoms of laughter--redness, tears, falling on the floor--vary from person to person. Sometimes, people run out of breath and can no longer make any sounds; they may lose all voluntary motor control and speech capacity, and may be capable of only bodily convulsions or shaking. The convulsions or shaking are the genuine laughter; sometimes this results in sound, but in severe cases sound is not possible. If you get close to the person, you might hear just a slight, jerky hissing.

If you really don't know what I'm talking about (especially if you have rarely laughed yourself and live amongst humorless people), then for you the circumstances under which the response sometimes occurs may be the easiest way to understand the distinction between genuine laughter from contrived laughter. Sometimes, the only time a person experiences genuine laughter is when he is being tickled. Even the most repressed, humorless person will engage in genuine laughter under these circumstances.

In the rest of this entry, when I refer to genuine laughter, this is what I mean.

Contrived laughter has various reasons for existing. The OCM article on humor lists many of those reasons; as far as I can tell, if focuses on instances of contrived laughter, not genuine laughter. The problem is that, in trying to explain humor or laughter, if you take all of these instances of contrived laughter into account, you get a big bloody mess that can't be sorted out. It is analogous to including under the concept PHILOSOPHY, every thought, conversation, comic strip, or dog's bark ever to come into being--no wonder that you can't make any headway. Contrived laughter is the kind that exists for the puposes of
...preserving order, changing group desteem and cohesion, expressing allegiances and revealing attitudes with relative impunity, testing the standing of a relationship, maintaining or undermining a status hierarchy...used to precipitate an absorbing and pacifying defuse the threats of others by engendering a debilitating discomfort...make light, or pretend to make light, of their own misfortunes and predicaments (Humor, 320, col. 1).
There are other reasons that it exists too, but you can see the very negative focus of the article's authors and their references by scanning this list.

For the most part, the OCM article on humor seems to refer to contrived laughter, but it is hard to tell in any given paragraph. The authors do seem to have some sense that there is a difference between genuine and contrived laughter, but it is only implicit: for example, they say "It seems that humour loses much of its splendour, infectiousness, and power under laboratory scrutiny, to such an extent that exuberant laughter is rarely elicited from experimental subjects." Here, when they say 'exuberant laughter', I infer that they are referring to what I am calling genuine laughter.

Contrived laughter is, simply, everthing else that is not the genuine laughter I explain above. It covers a broad range of noises and gestures. My friend Heather taught her baby, Emily, how to engage in polite contrived laughter. Heather says Emily's name, and when Emily looks at her, Heather smiles and says (SAYS, not laughs), "Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah." Emily, who wasn't saying more than 2 or 3 words at the time I first saw this being done, then imitates her without smiling. Emily has gotten so good at this that she will offer this sound as a response when she doesn't know what else the big humans around her want her to do or say, or when she is trying to communicate something and no one understands her. Just like adults! This 'hah, hah' utterance is dramatically distinguishable from what her father calls "the war whoop," which is emitted loudly and does not seem to be a form of communication at all. Rather, like my own genuine laughter, it seems to take Emily away somewhere private, or at least to stand in between her and the people around her, signifying to them only that she thinks something is funny.

I once knew a man who punctuated every sentence with the sound "ughCH!" When I first met him, I thought he was making the sound because he thought (or meant others to think) that what he was saying was funny. Indeed, when he was clearly making a joke, he would bark, "ughCH! ughCH!" But it turned out that it was really just a sign of a full stop, the period at the end of his sentence. When I say that genuine laughter has an uncontrollable character, I don't mean that it is the result of entrenched habit, as is the replacement of full stop with a laughlike coughing sound. That may be to some extent involuntary after years of repetition, but the loss of control of which I speak is more holistic, full-bodied, visceral, and consciousness-gripping: the thing that is being laughed at occupies the mind and body to such an extent that nothing else can thoroughly penetrate or be attended to (in some cases, as is usually the case with me, the laughter and its uncontrollability become part of the thing that is being laughed at. My laughter is recursive, massively parallel, non-linear, and can frighten repressed adults. I consider this one of my better traits.).

There is also a strong tendancy in the Humor article's authors, and in many people I talk to, to associate a necessary social component with laughter and humor. Somehow, the laughter is for the benefit of others, or for the benefit of the group as a whole. They are referring in the main, almost certainly, to what I am calling contrived laughter. Genuine laughter does not consult the social melieu before possessing someone; it has a tendency to burst forth even at the least socially appropriate time. While it is true that, when I laugh in a group, the reactions of other people who are watching me will add to the humor for me, nevertheless I'm quite capable of the same laughter when I am alone.

Case in point: It's Thursday night. I am completely alone; my next door neighbor isn't even home, and my doors and windows are closed. I've just eaten dinner and I'm finishing up the second piece of pie and cup of decaf coffee. My stomach is exceedingly full--much more full than is comfortable or usual, but I couldn't resist the hot, freshly-baked strawberry pie. It is exactly the wrong bodily state to be in for uncontrollable laughter. In defiance of the great personal risk, I have the television on, tuned to "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," which as usual is making me smile. But one of tonight's improvisations is horribly, horribly wrong in every possible way: random audience members have been wrenched from their seats, handed microphones, and are now supplying completely inappropriate sound-effects for Collin and Ryan, who are at the amusement park despite the fact that they are supposed to be delivering their baby any moment; they don't bother making up a skit themselves, because the sound effects are so terribly wrong that it's funnier to react to those vaguely along the theme of inconvenient baby-delivery. I am laughing so hard that I am simultaneously regretting having eaten so much pie (and this predicament becomes funny too, of course). To prevent myself from exploding, I am forced to slide out of my chair and into a kneeling position on the floor. Thank god for commercial breaks, or I might not have survived it. I behave the same way among other people, if there is something funny enough, and I assure you it has little to do with their approval, my social ranking among them, my need to appease them, or my desire to foment group cohesion--on the contrary, I frequently run the risk of confusing and disrupting the group when I do this. It's not a desirable outcome, but that is the nature of genuine laughter: genuine laughter is for the laugher, not for other people. Are you with me now?

The Purpose of Laughter

As I said, the reasons for contrived laughter are many, complex, and partly but clearly not exclusively social. I'm not interested in those right now. I'm interested in the basic, mostly involuntary, physical response of genuine laughter that comes prepackaged with every normal human being. What could it be for? Is it for anything? Is its pupose merely a precursor to, and a primer for, contrived laughter--or, intersectingly and more broadly, for social relations?

Here's what I think. Genuine laughter is something that we need. Just like vitamins, or sexual satisfaction, it is something we may deprived ourselves of and still survive. But to really thrive, we need vitamins, sex, and laughter. This is my overarching opinion, but I'm not going to attempt to try to prove this here.

Why We Laugh

To talk about why we need it, I will have to provide a description of the psychological circumstances under which genuine laughter occurs. Since I have not done a study, and I know of no data collected (most people can't even make the distinction), I will have to speak about my own case and of the cases of genuine laughter that I have witnessed in other people. The discussion will therefore, of necessity, have a Caro-slant. If you haven't experienced or witnessed (consciously) instances of genuine laughter, you will be completely lost by this discussion.

I have thought for a long time about what it is, generally speaking, that makes me laugh. Several people's observations about me have helped me to clarify it. My own observation is that I like absurdity, and the more absurd, the harder I laugh. Mary Jane Padrone observed, many years ago, "You like humor that makes you imagine something. You like to picture it in your mind." I think this is true of me. It could be because I am a highly visual person (by which I mean I delight in the stimulation of my eyes, and if I am deprived of varied visual stimulation I am unhappy and bored and can't concentrate; I don't mean that is the way I "learn best"--I don't think it is). David observed that my laughter was "non-linear," by which he meant that I start off laughing in response to the ostensible humorous thing, but then my laughter changes in character and intensifies as I make more and more connections to things not visible to the observer as well as to other things in the immediate scene that suddenly become funny in virtue of the original humorous thing (this is very abstract, but I'm trying to get it all down quickly; I'll have to provide examples later). My old friend Tom Marshalek once said that my laughter frightened him, that I seemed insane, and that he almost felt afraid that I would draw him into my insanity. My sister, whose laughter is similar to mine, said that I was like a woundup spring.

David and Mary Jane may seem to have said something different, but I think the essential element here is that I am imagining or picturing absurdities, and that I am making new absurd connections as I laugh. Tom Marshalek thought he was seeing insanity because (as I remember) he almost never got the joke; I'm sure I never saw him genuinely laugh, though he engaged in loud contrived laughter.

In the past month, thinking hard about a.i., I have come back again to the subject of laughter. I think it all started when Tom Radcliffe asked if our a.i. will laugh. And this raised the question for me of what purpose laughter might serve in human beings.

I have long believed that laughter is extremely beneficial. I know that my life is better, the more often and the harder I laugh. How I loved working at Designscape in Bloomington, Indiana! It was miserably hot under the summer sun, horribly humid; my normal body temperature being only 96.8, things were even worse for me than for ordinary human beings. The work was physically difficult and tiring; when we had to prune by hand an entire hedge of yews, it could be deadly dull. We were paid just a little over minimum wage. But I loved it, because I laughed all day. Mary Jane was by far the funniest person I have ever known. In a flash she could sum up a set of circumstances or make connections between disparate pieces of information and put her own Mary Jane spin on the result; and in a flash I would be rolling on the ground trying to breathe. Truly, working outdoors is healthiest for me, even in the unendurable heat of Indiana; but laughing all day long made me feel physically well and very happy. If it weren't for all the laughter, I wouldn't have continued to work under those extremely harsh and unpleasant conditions. So not only could I put up with difficult circumstances, but I felt really good too.

Aside from making me feel good, what else might it be doing for me? Why was it that the absurdities were what caught my attention and made me laugh? What do other people laugh at?

I think that the common element in the things people think are funny is wrongness. There is something wrong with what is being presented. It is most emphatically not the case that all wrong things make people laugh, or that the same wrong thing will make everyone laugh. (Your reading comprehension will be tested on this point later.) What one considers wrong is completely dependent upon one's own personal knowledge and current circumstances. This seemed a very broad conclusion to make about humor and laughter, a month ago, so the first thing I did was go over to Heather's house for more information. I asked her what makes Emily, 18 months old, genuinely laugh. "I mean, really laugh, not that little fake social laugh you taught her." Heather thought for a moment. "She really laughs when you run." Now, that surprised me! Of all the things that a baby could laugh at, why would she laugh the hardest when someone does something so ordinary? Heather could see the disbelief on my face. So she showed me. Without ceremony or comedy or comment of any kind, she simply called Emily's name and then ran once acroos the livingroom. Emily did indeed laugh, her face reddened, her eyes squinted, her mouth opened in a huge happy smile, and the sound came from deep within her. About 10 seconds after Heather stopped running, Emily stopped laughing, but she continued to smile happily, ehthralled. Heather then ran back a forth a couple of times. Emily was in hysterics. Remember, this is the little girl who already knows how to contrive a laugh; and that was not what she was doing. She was not offering a comment or a communique; this laugh was for her and her alone.

What good could this possibly do her? If I am basically like other human beings, and my hypothesis that it is things that are somehow wrong that make me laugh is applicable to other people, it should be applicable to Emily. But it's hard to see what is wrong with running, a perfectly normal animal thing to do. But is it normal? For Emily, it isn't. She can't run. Normally, inside her apartment, Heather doesn't run. No doubt when Heather takes Emily to the park, Heather is pushing the stroller or walking along with Emily, not running around. In Emily's world, running is wrong. It simply isn't done! In fact, it is not only highly unlikely; it is impossible! Yet there Heather is, doing the impossible, the absurd, the intensely wrong. And Emily loves it.

Later the same week I saw Emily with her father, John. I asked him what else makes Emily laughed, aside from running. He said she laughs when people jump. So I tried jumping around. Sure enough: hysterics from Emily.

Think about other things that make toddlers and little kids laugh. Tom recently commented that few things are as funny to his boys, 7 and 9, than their father falling down. Kids often laugh when someone falls or trips. Whereas we often take this as a sign that the child needs correction, or is insensitive to the plight of others, or actually enjoys witnessing pain, maybe something very different is going on. Hypothesis: What they are reacting to is the wrongness of the scene. Laughter places a special flag next to what is wrong, or absurd, or impossible, to make sure that they examine it more thoroughly later. And more: laughter jolts the entire system, and even forces reexamination of existing connections and "established" disparities for the express purpose of learning.

Things that are wrong have no place in the big database--this would be the operational definition of "what is wrong", on my emerging view. Maybe we use laughter to shake it up.

Laughter is a strongly physical event. It focuses the attention on the cause of the laughter; this is precisely why it is commonly thought of as interruptive, disruptive, or distracting. It distracts the attention from other things, or from moving on to other things. But it's not the case that attention or concentration are lost. On the contrary, attention and concentration, on the cause of the laughter, are heightened drastically. It is perhaps a merely Puritanical misconception that laughter and humor are problematic on the whole and indicate a loss or absence of seriousness.

It's worth reminding ourselves at this point that humor is a device that good teachers and speakers use to get a point across and help people remember material.

If Contrived Laughter Causes Pleasure...

If contrived laughter is a way of stimulating ourselves to feel just a smidgeon of the pleasure that genuine laughter causes, then that would help explain why we do it. For example, if someone thumps me on the back, I feel a small bit of pleasure; I can simulate a similar feeling by jerking my torso via internal musculature. It's perhaps not the impact per se, not the touch of the other person's hand, but the chain reaction of moving organs inside my body, that cause the feeling. (I'm not talking about the psychological satisfaction of being touched by another, but the raw physical stimulation.) Similarly, in genuine laughter the body convulses; perhaps it is this that stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain, not the mere thinking about something funny. So if we simulate genuine laughter by voluntarily convulsing just a bit, perhaps we can get a little of what we need. Social functions would then be built up upon this self-stimulation. More evidence that this could be the origin of contrived laughter is that sexual satisfaction tends to be more intense (and in some cases more likely or more possible) if one allows oneself to make sounds rather than if one tries to remain religiously and properly silent. Relaxation via meditation and yoga is facilitated by vocalization--this is why there are accompanying mantra sounds that reverberate deep inside one's body. It is something that we can do to ourselves. It may happen more often than we are aware or would like to know.

To be continued.
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