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Inside Jokes – Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind

Inside Jokes – Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind

by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams, Jr., Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011
384 pp. Trade, £20,95/ $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01582-0.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth

edith.doove@plymouth.ac.uk

Laughter currently seems to be at the centre of attention, since following Parvulescu’s recent book, Laughter – Notes on a PassionInside Jokes – Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind is the second book published by MIT in a relatively short time on the topic.

Whereas there are some inevitable overlaps with Parvulescu’s, these are obviously very different books. Parvelescu concentrates hers on the actual phenomenon of laughter, relating it to a wide range of subjects like laughing as incantation, the matter of laughing at, passion, the mouth, the last avant-gardes, woman, reading/listening and finally the archive of laughter (see my review in Leonardo December 2010, http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/dec2010/doove_parvulescu.php).

Hurley, Dennett and Adams, on the other hand, state in their preface that they will explain “why humor exists, how it works in the brain, and why comedy is an art” and thus different from science (p. x). While they admit that theirs “is an unabashedly eclectic theory, drawing heavily on existing work on humor” (p. 7) their extensive bibliography, however ,does not include Parvelescu, possibly because it was published too late.

The starting point for the book was Hurley’s dissertation; nonetheless for all three authors the book represents the “proper account of laughter” (and amusement) that “moves beyond pure phenomenology”.  This account was first called for more fully by Dennett in his Consciousness Explained (1991, 64-66). However, there is a significant deviation from the original call by Dennett, which was that  “[a] proper account of laughter must leave out the presumed intrinsic hilarity, the zest, the funniness, because their presence would merely postpone the attempt to answer the question” (1991, p.64). Rather confusingly this is exactly what Hurley, Dennett and Adams do not do in this latest book. This book looks inside jokes and how humor can be used to reverse-engineer the mind. At the same time, it delivers inside jokes and uses humor to reverse-engineer the mind. It seems obvious that a book that wants to look inside jokes would present examples of these. It is worse if a book tries to both explain humor and be funny at the same time. One could argue that Hurley, Dennett and Adams are happy to take on a risky business, as humor might be a universal phenomenon, but the appreciation of it, as they indicate themselves, is not necessarily so. This leads to some fairly weak jokes at the start of the book, a feature that is reflected in the title of the book and unfortunately continued throughout.

Apart from a thorough study of humor and the working of jokes, the reader is not only presented with mostly non-referenced jokes at the beginning of each chapter and section, but, additionally, also with a mysterious system of numbered, equally non-referenced, jokes throughout the book, causing considerable distraction. There is also an overall populist kind of tone that somehow is bothersome with insertions like “in case you wondered”, and the kind of sloppy quotations mentioned earlier.

The most interesting question this book poses and tries to answer, however, is why humor exists in the first place. It appears to be very prominent in our lives, and maybe more so then ever before given the profusion of stand up comedy in recent times. In order to answer this and other why questions, Hurley, Dennett and Adams declare that they want “to provide a preliminary sketch of not just a cognitive model, but an emotional and computational model of humor” (p. 3).  Additionally they want to work “toward a theory that would allow humor (…) to be computed and experienced by a nonhuman agent (…) that not only can make jokes but that can truly be said to have “a sense of humor” much like the human sense” (p. 4). In order to do this they argue that humor “depends on thought” requiring that their “book must sketch a theory of the kind of general intelligence that could support a genuine sense of humor” (p. 5). In the process they introduce some “key novelties” such as “a new evolutionary explanation of the origin of humor; an ecologically motivated theory of the emotional component of mirth; and a cognitive theory of humor and laughter” (p. 6).

The question remains what is humor for? From a biologically determinist position there is a possible, and seemingly logical, connection to fitness where “females use sense of humor (in males) as a hard-to-fake advertisement of intelligence and power” (p.11). But Hurley, Dennett and Adams regard humor more as a “powerful reward system” that will keep our “brains engaged full time in real-time (risky) heuristic search, generating presumptions about what will be experienced next in every domain” (p.12). It, thus, becomes clear that humor and laughter are connected to insight and leads to mirth as we crack the puzzle or, for that matter, the joke. In a way we all seem to be cast as fulltime detectives, constantly solving problems and delighted when we do so. Apart from solving problems, we come across automatically as we go through daily life, we also enjoy inventing them and jokes are in this sense puzzles, mathematical problems, or detective stories.

Hurley, Dennett and Adams have, indeed, managed to write a puzzling book with an open end as they freely admit that their research is nowhere near creating a nonhuman agent with a sense of humor. Despite the criticism above on aspects of its structure, Inside Jokes certainly does deliver a thorough study of jokes, humor and laughter, which is worth engaging with. It is rich in its references and thought provoking, providing amongst others a phenomenology of humor and a brief history of humor theories on which to build further research. It is just a pity in trying to be both funny and serious, it falls between two stools. Admittedly (a sense of) humor is a personal matter, and there will be a range of readings of it, but the strategy that the authors have adopted can (and in my view does) make research into the complicated topic of laughter and jokes more complex.


Last Updated 2 August 2011

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