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Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind [Hardcover]

Matthew M. Hurley , Daniel C. Dennett , Reginald B. Adams Jr.

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Book Description

March 4 2011

Some things are funny -- jokes, puns, sitcoms, Charlie Chaplin, The Far Side, Malvolio with his yellow garters crossed -- but why? Why does humor exist in the first place? Why do we spend so much of our time passing on amusing anecdotes, making wisecracks, watching The Simpsons? In Inside Jokes, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams offer an evolutionary and cognitive perspective. Humor, they propose, evolved out of a computational problem that arose when our long-ago ancestors were furnished with open-ended thinking. Mother Nature -- aka natural selection -- cannot just order the brain to find and fix all our time-pressured misleaps and near-misses. She has to bribe the brain with pleasure. So we find them funny. This wired-in source of pleasure has been tickled relentlessly by humorists over the centuries, and we have become addicted to the endogenous mind candy that is humor.


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Review

Ever since Plato (who thought we laugh at vice), thinkers as serious as Kant and Freud have put forth theories of our giggles and guffaws. Hurley, Dennett, and Adams go at the problem with the ingenuity of first-rate scientists and the timing of first-rate comics. Not only do they have the riches of evolutionary psychology from which to draw, but they're even funnier than Hegel.

(Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction)

The deft use of humor can win a mate, persuade an audience, or make a tyrant quake in his jackboots. Yet no one really understands why the human brain should respond so forcefully to that cocktail of anomaly, indignity, and rhythmic vocalization we call a joke. Hurley, Dennett, and Adams offer a sophisticated analysis of this important phenomenon using high standards of evolutionary explanation -- and no, it is not a turgid academic disquisition, but written with clarity, good cheer, and, of course, wit.

(Steven Pinker, author of How The Mind Works)

[O]ne of the most complex and sophisticated humor theories ever presented.... The authors should be lauded for their thought-provoking and original work.

(Evolutionary Psychology)

The theory [the authors] elaborate is a detailed and sophisticated descendant of incongruity theories.... The learned and even-handed stance adopted by [them] regarding problem cases is... upbeat: they regard their theory as a provisional staging post, and a prompt to further empirical enquiry into these open-ended issues. On balance, that is probably the right attitude to take.

(The Times Literary Supplement)

Inside Jokes 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... has ever published (in a good way).

(Sharon Begley The Daily Beast)

Science advances by asking new questions, and Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams raise a lot of them.... Some of these questions have been asked before, but no previous attempt succeeds in answering so many so well.

(Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Science)

Hurley and his crew cross the road to not just explain a joke, but explain all jokes. Before this book the only comedy that had been peer reviewed and replicated in double-blind experiments was the theory that there's nothing funnier than a smoking monkey. I'm so glad smart people outside of comedy are taking comedy seriously.

(Penn Jillette of "Penn & Teller")

MIT Press has come up with a page-turner, a book you can't put down. That is no joke! The authors have dissected the mental state of humor and, instead of dismissing it, instill awe about the beauty of the evolved human mind. Humor at its various levels cleans up our act and plays a magnificent role in making us who we are.

(Michael Gazzaniga, Director, Sage Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara)

What's so funny about a robot with a sense of humor? In this highly original analysis, Hurley, Dennett, and Adams try to locate the holy grail, the essence of a joke, by using a variety of tools (from computer science, cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy, and even evolutionary psychology) to dissect why we laugh. This powerful team of authors goes a long way to explain why and when we laugh, and in doing so uncover insights about how the mind works. But like the proverbial millipede who, trying to analyze how he lifts each of his legs in the precise sequence, starts tripping over, readers should beware that getting inside a joke risks dehumorizing it!

(Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University)

About the Author

Matthew M. Hurley is currently researching teleology and agency at the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University.

Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. He is the author of Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (MIT Press) and other books.

Reginald B. Adams, Jr., is Associate Professor of Psychology researching emotion and social perception at Penn State University.

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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Taking Jokes Seriously April 30 2011
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Anywhere in the world, if you are in a group of people chatting, you will find yourself or find someone else talking in a way to attempt to produce laughter in those listening. It seems to be hardwired behavior for us, because it happens in every society we know. Not only do amateur humorists aim to bring laughter to others, professionals can get paid to do so, and the payment comes from people who buy tickets because they so value the laughter experience. Why do we laugh, and why is it so important for us to do so? There have been lots of explanations for this interesting, enjoyable, and universal behavior over the millennia (of course Aristotle had a crack at it), and they are all reviewed in _Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind_ (The MIT Press) which grew out of a dissertation by Matthew M. Hurley, who is joined here by co-authors Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams. The authors propose their new theory of humor, which encompasses what they say are the partial explanations that have gone before. It is a persuasive theory, and the book is successful for a number of reasons. It quite properly examines the evolutionary role of laughter; anything that universal must be promoting our fitness somehow. It is a serious work; the authors invite researchers to take it seriously and to start up the brain scans and other research to confirm or expand their theory. And though it is serious, and the writing is academic and not jocular, the topic is fun. The authors obviously enjoy jokes and enjoy them better for getting some understanding of how they operate. They quote E. B. White, who made a joke about examining jokes too closely: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Explaining a particular joke to someone who hasn't gotten it is never fun or funny, but a general examination of how humor works can only increase our appreciation for one of evolution's blessings.

There are so many things that can make us laugh that it is hard to say that any particular characteristic of laughable things is the foundation of humor, so it is not useful to look at all laughable things to find what is the common denominator for the humor within them. We are more likely to understand humor from the inside, from what it does to and for our brains. The authors explain that our brains, which are geniuses at making models and predictions, take pleasure in making corrections as the models and predictions are found wanting and have to be modified. Humor takes advantage of this hardwired internal brain behavior, and gives the pleasure of self-correction of mental spaces. Just as the pleasures of pornography ride upon but do not directly satisfy our sexual urges, or as the pleasures of sweetening from aspartame take over our energy-seeking appetites without having intrinsic nutritional value, the pleasures of jokes and humor represent a benevolent hijacking of the system for correcting our mental spaces. A joke (at least in many forms) sets up a premise, a mental space, and then the hearer gets rewarded by the pleasure of correcting that mental space. In jokes, this is all for fun, but the fun is dependent on a deeply important internal mechanism of assumption, prediction, and correction, a mechanism without which we could not make our way in the world. The better we can generate mental spaces and correct them (disregarding their role in humor), the better we can interact with everything around us. A good intelligence encompasses good modeling of mental spaces and the capacity to correct the assumptions therein. It is no coincidence that "wit" and "intelligence" can be synonymous.

This is a book filled with jokes; there are cartoons here, too, and various ambiguous drawings, so that if the theorizing ever seems dry, there is always a joke coming up soon. Many of them are explicitly pulled apart here, and the exercise is not as morbid as E. B. White might have guessed. The jokes show the many previous explanations of humor, like surprise or the feeling of superiority or incongruity or the release theory of Freud, and the overall theory within the book shows how such previous explanations are merely partial, like the blind men perceiving different parts of the elephant. The theory here encompasses the previous ones, and shows humor to be part of the brain's essential mechanisms of emotion and learning. _Inside Jokes_ is an enjoyable tour of the forbidden, deep, dark recesses we all carry about in our crania.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This well-written theory of humor makes other theories look pretty weak. Jan. 6 2012
By Chris Edwards - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In the middle of 2011 a new theory of humor popped onto the science blogs - this was Peter McGraw's Benign Violation Theory of Humor. I mention it because it provides a helpful contrast to the subject of Inside Jokes. I was pretty interested in the Benign Violation Theory when I heard about it, and upon further investigation, it sounded pretty reasonable to me. Later hearing that the brilliant Daniel Dennett had endorsed a new and different theory of humor, I had to check it out. This theory of humor and its entire presentation redefined for me the standard of what a theory of humor needs to be.

Reading Inside Humor, I could see that the BVT was pretty weak in many areas. It may be true enough that it describes *what* humor is (see McGraw's TED talk called "What Makes Things Funny") however, it didn't seem to say anything about *why*. This omission only became obvious when Inside Jokes argued that "why" was really the interesting question and that they had answered it. I also think that the Benign Violation Theory has a danger of being somewhat circular - humor results from a "violation" but could a violation be defined as something that, when benign, was funny?

Again, I mention this competing theory to demonstrate how much more comprehensive the theory of Inside Jokes is. It is a functional theory that would inform someone who wanted to design a synthetic brain capable of humor. I felt this theory's attention to the big picture was far more complete than any other theory I'd heard. It made me feel like other theories of humor were merely "observations" of humor.

In classic philosopher style, Daniel Dennett keeps the theory on track by very explicitly avoiding circular thinking, incomplete theories, and other easy-to-make thought errors (which he enumerates). He puts forth a list of hard questions that a proper theory of humor must be able to answer and then makes sure they get answered. I felt that the scrutiny of the questions was a valuable contribution to the topic by itself and the idea (Hurley's apparently) of how to answer them was kind of a bonus.

To me it seemed like this work was in a different league than the BVT and theories put forth by other philosophers through history. It seemed like this idea also provided insight into how the mind works and why humor is essential to our brains functioning the way that they do.

If you're interested in humor or how the mind works, this is an excellent and powerful book. It is extremely well-thought out, well-written, well-researched, and, given it's subject matter, pretty entertaining.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Feeling mirth is the brain's way of telling us that we are flat-out wrong! July 15 2011
By Didaskalex - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
****
O'Connell was late for a meeting and in a panic as he looked for a parking spot. Turning his face to the sky, he said, "Lord help me. If you give me a parking spot, I will go to church every Sunday...!" Just then, out of nowhere, a parking spot appeared in front of him. O'Connell looked up again and said, "Never mind, I found one." -- Sharon Begley, April Fools' Day

A good laugh refreshes a sense of perspective about ourselves and our inability to justify ourselves. Such humor helps us see the futility of our efforts of self-justification, relying on a bountiful source which is God's grace. While touring the nave of St. Steven Cathedral, Vienna, Austria, my sons noticed engraved characters, mockingly posing on the side of the pulpit rotunda, which I was delighted to examine. The reformers, utilized humor to discredit the Roman curia, and its malpractice. Zwingli,'the peoples preacher,' controversially walked around in Zurich eating wurst, during the Catholic fasts. So whether you are a believer or an atheist, a good laugh is always welcomed, it will revive your hope, or refresh your atheism.

The philosophical study of humor has been centered around establishing a definition of humor, treated until recently as roughly commensurate with laughter. Psychologists' main task is to develop an adequate theory of just what humor is. A variety of biological, communicational, and other social classes of humor-related phenomena are described and explained in terms of the humor theory. According to the standard analysis, humor theories can be classified into three clearly identifiable groups: incongruity, superiority, and relief theories. Incongruity theory is the most favored approach and includes philosophers and religious figures such as Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, with its probable origins in Aristotle's comments in the Rhetoric.

The conclusion spelled out in the fun-reading book, "Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind," expounding the most complete theory of humor in centuries, since scientists started their efforts trying to explain why we crack up. Written with eminent philosopher Daniel Dennett, of Tufts University and Pennsylvania State psychologist Reginald Adams arguing that the feeling we experience encountering humor emanates with the brain culminates that it has been fooled to a definitely twisted conclusion through a smart trickery. A humor inviting brain actively provides expectations for what will happen next. "Feeling mirth is the brain's way of telling us that we committed too soon to one interpretation of reality or to one assumption about the future," argue the authors, as it creates legions of possibilities, about weird present situations in a situation of incomplete information. Humor is what we perceive when we make a mistaken assumption and discover it, making mirth pleasurable. The informed authors argue that, "evolution has sculpted a mechanism that bribes us to continue generating such assumptions and filling in details in ambiguous situations, without which we could not function in the world."
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat Convincing Feb. 25 2012
By Peter McCluskey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
This book has the best explanation I've seen so far of why we experience humor. The simplistic summary is that it is a reward for detecting certain kinds of false assumptions. And after it initially evolved it has been adapted to additional purposes (signaling one's wit), and exploited by professional comedians in the way that emotions which reward reproductive functions are exploited by pornography.

Some of the details of which false beliefs qualify as a source of humor and how diagnosing them to be false qualifies as a source of humor seem arbitrary enough that the theory falls well short of the kind of insight that tempts me to say "that's obvious, why didn't I think of that?". And a few details seem suspicious - the claims that people are averse to being tickled and that one sensation tickling creates is that of being attacked don't seem consistent with my experience.

They provide some clues about the precursors of humor in other species (including laughter, which apparently originated independently from humor as a "false alarm" signal), and give some hints about why the greater complexity of the human mind triggered a more complex version of humor than the poorly understood versions that probably exist in some other species.

The book has some entertaining sections, but the parts that dissect individual jokes are rather tedious. Also, don't expect this book to be of much help at generating new and better humor - it does a good job of clarifying how to ruin a joke, but it also explains why we should expect creating good jokes to be hard.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Aug. 8 2013
By W. Cheung - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a long book. However, it can be summarized in two sentences:

"Mirth is the pleasure in unearthing a particular variety of mistake in active belief structures."
"Humor is any semantic circumstance in which we make such a mistake and succeed in discovering it." (page 117)

The remainder of the book is devoted to give evidence and explanation in order to prove that the above conjectures are correct. To me the authors have done a convincing job. However, as mentioned, this book is long and not necessarily exciting because in order to be comprehensive, it can be at times repetitive.

Nevertheless it is informative and essential for those who are interested in why humor exists in the context of evolutionary psychology.
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