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The neurobiological basis of humour

Introduction

Last month the Monty Python crew gathered in London for what could be their last stage show together. The reactions to it were mixed. The British media was largely antipathetic towards the idea. Most columnists thought of this as one last ditch by the Pythons to milk their long-lost glory. Speculations abounded about the monetary motives of the Pythons behind their decision. The coverage of the event reeked of a similar amount of disengagement on part the British media, the world-media mostly chose to ignore it. Despite their repeated attempts to publicise the event, the media declared the parrot to be dead.

But that’s telling only half of the story. After the announcement of the show, when the ticket-sales went live, they sold out in a record 43.5 seconds. Fans flocked in from all over the world, dressed up in funny Python costumes, lent their voices to the chorus of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. I live in India, if I had managed to save up the money to go to London or if I had found a suitable buyer for one of my kidneys, I’d have flown in there to laugh at the jokes and skits which we all know by heart by now.

So what is it about comedy, or humour in general, that we find it so alluring? Woody Allen once said about stand-up comedy that “it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” If you look at any stand-up comedy show, the whole phenomenon is kind of intriguing. I think it was Carl Sagan who described it from the perspective of an alien visitor to earth. You come to visit this planet and you see all these humans paying up their hard-earned money to get into a confined space to listen to another person talk so they can participate in this ritualistic act of hyperventilating with a specific sound coming out of their mouths. Why do we laugh? Why do we like to laugh? We are going to analyse these questions from a scientific perspective in this article. E.B. White once said that, “Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Let’s try to keep the parrot alive as we try to dissect it.

Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

Evolving humour

Humour is nearly universal across all human cultures, though it might vary in form and content across them. Humour plays an important role in the social structure of Australian aboriginals who had been separated from the rest of humanity for over 35,000 years. Every contemporary human culture that has been studied has shown recognisable signs of humour. And as far as written history goes, there have been evidences of humour being one of the ubiquitous tools of human expression. Consider the ancient Greek philosophers; Democritus was dubbed as the ‘laughing philosopher’. Aristophanes’ humour, possibly crude to the modern taste, was very much a fad in ancient Greece. All of these point to the fact that humour, the ability to perceive it and produce it evolved long ago in our past. Despite the pervasive nature of this trait in almost all the spheres of our lives, surprisingly little research has been done on the evolutionary roots of it.

Charles Darwin spoke of ‘laughter’ as a ‘social expression of happiness’ and speculated about its role in providing a cohesive survival advantage to groups. The relationship between laughter and humour is complicated. Laughter has been defined as a ‘seizure-like activity that can be elicited by experiencing a humorous cognitive stimulus but also other stimuli such as tickling.’ Humour may not always be associated with laughter and vice versa. But most of the animal research into this subject has focused on display of outward signs such as laughter in different species. Whether their internal theatre plays something as rich as ‘The Flying Circus’ remains a mystery.

When tickled, all higher primates including humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orang-utans, display a laughter-like behaviour. Given that these diverse groups of primates shared a common ancestor at least 14 million years ago, we can say that the rudimentary neural mechanisms for producing laughter existed since then. Hypothesising about the phylogenetic roots of ‘smiling’ and ‘laughing’, evolutionary biologist van Hoof proposed that smiling could be a modification of the “bared-teeth display” seen in many mammals while laughter is a modification of the “relaxed open-mouth display” seen in primates and other mammals while participating in playful activities. Playful activity is almost universal in all the primate species. Play provides us with the space to explore within a protected environment as is an inevitable part of the growing-up phase of any animal. In species where the parents provide care for their offspring for a considerable period of time after birth, playful behaviour is seen in the infants and up to the adolescent stage while some of it percolates into the later stages of life. Fans of Frans de Waal would have read about young chimpanzees throwing dirt at each other, hitting each other with sticks or jumping on their elders in a funny way. The elder chimpanzees further encourage this behaviour by participating in a mock-chase or by tickling the youngsters in return. De Waal speculates that this form of playful behaviour “serves to gather information about the social environment and to investigate authority” and hence is an inevitable part of their maturation phase.

Although we do not subscribe to the Haeckelian notion of ‘ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny’ anymore, tracing the development of the ability to appreciate humour in human babies provide us with insightful cues into the evolutionary roots and fundamental traits of this behaviour. In humans, ‘responsive smiling’ develops at around the age of five months and laughter is usually recognisable from the age of around four months. Psychologist Paul McGhee, one of the leading experts on the psychology of humour, mentions four phases in the development of a sense of humour in human infants. The first phase involves ‘incongruous actions toward objects’ which violates the normal utility function of that object. So the baby would pick up a piece of paper and pretend to eat it or she might put a banana against her ears and pretend that it’s a telephone. The second stage involves the ‘incongruous labelling of objects’ where they’d inappropriately label an object or try to find the morphological similarities between unrelated objects and label them as similar. Koko, the gorilla, showed traces of this behaviour where she’d deliberately mis-label objects and then laugh at the misery of her trainers. The third phase involves a more complicated appreciation of the conceptual similarities and dissimilarities of objects and ideas. At the final stage, they tend to find multiple meanings of similar sounding ideas and concepts and then play with those ideas to create the funny. To understand how these concepts translate into what we call humour in its recognisable form in the adults, we need to look at the different theories behind the origin of it. We do that in the next section.

Theories of humour

Many theories have been put forth to explain the origin of humour, to explain why we find something funny. None of them encapsulate the whole picture nor do they antagonise each other, rather the complementary nature of these theories in trying to explain humour belies the enormity and complexity of this trait. Here we briefly discuss the three main theories in vogue and take a brief glimpse of the other prominent ones proposed so far.

The first and most popular theory is the ‘Incongruity Theory’ initially proposed by contemporaries Immanuel Kant and James Beattie and further expounded by philosophers as Soren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer. J.M. Suls explains the theory as: “Solving an incongruity by applying an alternative formulation to the discrepancy forms the basis of humour.” The basic idea is that we develop a certain worldview and certain concepts about what things are and the relationship between them as we grow up. Any violation to that mental structure leads to an incongruity. About these two incongruous elements, T.C. Veatch speaks, “one element is socially normal while the other constitutes a violation of the social moral order.” In trying to cope with this incongruity, we re-align our perspective to make the two fit. When we fail to do so, the reaction is the feeling of being amused. The set-up provides us with a premise in our worldview. The punch-line violates that thereby causing humour.

The other popular theory in explaining humour is the ‘Relief Theory’ endorsed by Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, John Dewey and so on. This idea has its roots in the ancient idea of ‘nervous energy’ which gets pent up in our brains and needs an occasional vent. Freud referred to humour as “release of excessive sexual or aggressive tension”. John Dewey said, “Laughter marks the ending of a period of suspense or expectation.” Although why should these energies pile up in search of a vent is not properly explained within the framework of the theory.

The other popular theory in trying to explain humour is the ‘Superiority Theory’ initially proposed by Plato and then worked on by Hobbes in ‘Leviathan’. According to Plato, laughter is the expression of the feelings of superiority. Hobbes dubbed it as an extension of ‘sudden glory’. According to this theory, we use humour to establish our superiority over others, to raise our status and that of our peers over others and in the process ostracise them. While this certainly seems to be one of the chief attributes of humour, it is difficult to explain most of humour through this alone.

Other theories include ‘Relaxation Theory’ of Robert Latta, the ‘False Alarm Theory’ of V.S. Ramachandran and so on. But they are out of scope here. We have spent a considerable time trying to analyse the evolutionary roots of humour, the ontogenic underpinning, and the cognitive processes working underneath. Let’s conclude by appreciating the role it plays in our lives.

Conclusion

Adaptive or exaptive, humour is a complex human trait. All the intricacies of our cognitive repertoire find their channels of expression through it. Some of us are particularly vulnerable to it while others seem relatively immune to the ridiculous. Some fail to see the funny in Monty Python, others laugh at almost everything. Most people fall somewhere in between. “Qui sent, pleure. Qui peuse, rit.” Horace Walpole’s famous quip, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Most of us keep switching between the empathetic ‘feeler’ and the dispassionate ‘thinker’. Many a drama turn into a comedy when we shift our perspective, when we zoom out a little and strain to find the ‘funny’ in the ‘serious’.

One of my fondest memories of Monty Python is a small event outside the Global Atheist Convention conference center in Melbourne in 2012. Atheists and freethinkers from all over the world had flocked in there to organise a seminar, to speak about issues that matter to them. Outside the convention center had gathered a bunch of Muslim protesters. They had placards that said, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali, go to hell”, “Death to Christopher Hitchens” and so on. They were vocalising the slogans as well. The atheists had flocked together at a distance from them and started a slogan-chanting contest of sorts. Whenever the Muslim protesters shouted, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Go To Hell!”, the atheists would start chanting, “Where are the women?” and so on. The most beautiful thing was when the atheists started singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in chorus. Here were a group of humans so entrenched in the parochial superstitious nonsense that is religion that they didn’t hesitate to demand death-sentences for their fellow beings. But on the opposite end, were a group of humans singing together a jolly song. In the face of all that is wrong with our world, humour is probably our best defence. That we can laugh is our greatest strength. Amidst wars, diseases, genocides, and famines, there’ll always be a group of village idiots dressed in stupid clothes, silly-walking through the streets of London representing all that is glorious about our species.

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