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Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind


It’s years now since I started my work on humor, jokes, and comedy. My introduction to standup comedy and my introduction to improvisation courses helped propel me forward in my speaking and my thinking. My post I am a Comedian summarizes the work at that time. Since then, I posted two more book reviews that weren’t ready when I did my I am a Comedian post. However, there’s a book I started reading back then that I hadn’t managed to make my way through. The book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind isn’t in the popular reading category. It’s MIT Press – so you know it’s going to have an academic component. It was difficult to read when compared to the comedy books about the conquests of some famous comedians. It was, in short, hard.

As a result, I read enough to get some key bits and put it aside to finish another day. Well, today is that day. I started getting intrigued with the concepts again as I read Spiritual Evolution and Play, both of which talking about how evolution shaped us. I wondered how humor was baked into the cocktail of our DNA and Inside Jokes had the answer.

Just because it’s hard reading doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend it – quite the contrary. I wish I had finished it sooner.

Darwin’s Funny Evolution

So how in the heck does humor work its way into our DNA? What possible use could there be for humor? As it turns out, the answer may be that it’s critical to our survival. The book Incognito was clear about the lies that our brain tells us – and how those lies are necessary to compensate for missing information. Our brains are designed to fill in missing pieces and make educated guesses to allow us to function with incomplete information. Working with incomplete information is, in fact, our default way of thinking.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is keen to tell us that our System 1 (normal operating system) lies to System 2 (higher order reasoning.) In short, we’re making assumptions all the time and we’re not even aware that we’re making the assumptions. Left unchecked, these systems of guesses and inferences without any basis in reality could lead us to some very disastrous consequences. As a result, evolution needed a mechanism for helping us identify errors in our thinking and resolve them. Humor is – it seems –that system. When we make a mistaken logical inference or we just plain gaff something, the discovery triggers in us a small reward. The same reward we get when solving a puzzle – something our ancestors would have needed to be rewarded for in order to survive. Solving a puzzle often meant the ability to acquire more food.

Laughing with Duchenne

As it turns out there are two relatively distinct forms of laughter. There’s what might be called genuine laughter, which has a set of associated involuntary muscle movements. The signature of genuine laughter is the brow furrowed and the corners of the mouth turned up strongly by pull from the orbicularis oculi and simulated (either consciously or not), in which the orbicular muscle plays little or no part. This was discovered by Benjamin Duchenne – and thus is called Duchenne laughter. (These involuntary facial movements reminds me of Paul Ekman’s work, see Social EngineeringTrust Me, and Emotional Awareness for more about Ekman’s work.)

The other kind of laughter, which is more aptly described as social laughter or non-Duchenne laughter, happens all the time. However, it happens not because someone finds something funny directly, but rather they are in a social situation where others are laughing. This kind of laughter may mean that we didn’t fall for the path the joke was leading us to – or we simply didn’t get it. Either way our laughter is less pure joy of discovery of our error and more about connecting to the crowd.

I can tell you from my brief and uneventful standup “career” that the size of the crowd (and how they’re sitting) has a huge impact on how funny people think jokes, lines, and tags are. Once you get a crowd going, if they’re big enough you could read Shakespeare to them and they’ll be rolling on the floor laughing. It’s substantially harder to play to a small room. Even the best comedians don’t hit all of their followers with every joke. Having enough people “get it” can prime the pump and get the crowd laughing.

Pain Relief

There are doctors like Patch Adams who institutionalized humor in medicine and saw impressive results. Humor has a way of elevating our body’s ability to heal itself. The mind-body connection, though mysterious, is real. However, humor can help to resolve more than just the physical pains and ailments of our body. Humor allows us a safe release of our emotional pain as well.

As I mentioned in my review of Chasing the Scream, addictions are the result of our emotional pains bubbling to the surface and taking the form of the addiction. Addictions aren’t pharmacologically based – they’re about our emotional and mental states and our need for release.

Most of the things that we do for pain relief can constitute an addiction. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, sex, or something else, most of the things that we can do to temporarily blot out the pain we feel can result in an addiction, and comes with potential consequences like a hangover, a hospital visit, or a sexually transmitted disease.

The good news is that we may be able to accomplish the same effect of temporarily blotting out our pain by using humor. Going to a comedy club, watching a comedy program on Netflix, etc., may be a way to trick our brain into giving us some extra dopamine. There are very few reasons to not go to a comedy club. You’ll spend a few dollars on the tickets and drinks or food, but in the end you’ll generally have a humor-filled experience.

Humor, by its nature, is hard to become addicted to. You can only get so many new concepts and misdirections before you anticipate them and you have to find a new comic, a new genre, or decade. Thus, it might be a perfect way to put aside the pain for a while – but not too long.

The Perfect Date

After my divorce and before I wanted to find someone to spend the rest of my life with, I decided I needed to learn how to date again. I had 15 years in my first marriage so I hadn’t dated in a long time. I didn’t know how to do it. As a result, I decided I’d do some practice dating. I’d be upfront that I wasn’t looking for someone to get into a serious relationship with. I’d tell the ladies I was dating that I didn’t want a serious relationship. I just wanted to go out and have fun.

I fell into a pattern. There was an 8PM show at Morty’s Comedy Joint on Friday nights. I could take a date there, eat dinner and grab a drink – then watch the show. For me, the first beautiful thing was that I got to see what they thought was funny – and what they didn’t think was funny. I’d have limited time to talk with them before the show began so if it wasn’t going well, I could zone out on the date and focus on enjoying myself at the show. The second part that was great is that the show ended around 10PM – late enough to politely say goodbye if that was appropriate, and equally early enough to offer to go out for a drink or coffee.

What I didn’t know then – but know now – is that humor is used by females as a litmus test for intelligence. It’s really hard to fake the kind of intelligence it takes to “get” a joke. So while I was trying to figure out if we were compatible, my dates were sizing up my intelligence.

I didn’t realize how great the plan was. I only got to use it a few times before I met my wife Terri. Apparently, I laughed in all the right places, and so did she.

Mental Space is a Terrible Thing to Waste

In order to understand how humor works, it’s first necessary to understand how our brains work – at least as it pertains to how humor comes to be. The critical core of this is that we have mental space. That mental space allows us to build a picture or a model of the situation in our head. It’s this model in our heads that Gary Klein reported got so accurate as to be able to help fire captains be able to predict fires in Sources of Power. These mental spaces pop up instantly as we process the symbols of our language.

If I write about a red car, you’ll picture one in your head. If I speak about a polar bear, you’ll instantly consider a large white bear. I don’t have to say anything more and the picture pops up instantly in the mental space you’ve created for reading this post. You can’t not think about a horse of a different color if I mention it to you. (See Redirect for more about not thinking about something.)

Just in Time Spreading Activation

The primary premise of the book is that humor happens as a result of the artifacts of a brain that was designed by evolution to make rapid inferences. Said differently, to walk up Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference. (See Choice Theory and Hardwiring Happiness for more references to his work.) Because we’re all the time leaping to conclusions and we’re building mental models. We’re building the model just in time.

What I mean by this is that our brains don’t have the capacity to enumerate all of the possibilities and evaluate each one. We make an assumption and move on. The idea is that we’ll be able to correct for an error later if necessary. So we make decisions when we need to and not before. If I were to ask you what kind of car you saw when I mentioned the red car, you might answer with “I don’t know” because you didn’t bother to draw in the details of the car, or you might say that it was a specific kind of car that you want or that you own.

If you answered with a specific car, the chances are you did so because it took nearly no mental energy to fixate on that form of a red car. Because it’s already familiar to you, you just substituted it into the model. However, if you didn’t and you were pressed, you could probably transform a vague picture of a red car into a specific type and model of car – if you felt it relevant to the concept in your mental space. This is just in time processing at its finest. You don’t do anything until you have to.

Logical Inconsistencies

Our brains are amazing systems, but the brain is not without its flaws. Because of limited processing capacity, we have to process things for a time, then put them away in long-term storage for later retrieval. This works well for the most part; however, sometimes we file away two contradictory things, and they sit side-by-side in our long-term memory until they’re called to the surface and they’re brought up into the same mental space. The ideas that we are currently considering are considered active memories. It’s only active memories that we can challenge and compare to one another.

Because of the structural changes that happen in our brains, we’re really not able to remember things that happened to us before we were two years old. Despite this many of us have “memories” from times earlier than 2 years. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, if you are interested in the problems caused by this.) These “memories” are really beliefs that we formed about the way that things were back then from the stories that we heard. They can sit side-by-side with the reality of the situation until they’re exposed. Exposing that someone didn’t really go to an ice cream shop every single day may not be funny; however, exposing other misconceptions to the light of the day may be.

Idea Smack Down

Humor exists in the conflict of ideas. We assume one thing and we’re confronted with conflicting evidence that our assumption is not correct. The trick is that there’s a subtle area between an idea that’s so loosely held that we don’t care if it’s wrong, and one that we hold on to so strongly that we’re willing to fight to protect it even to the point of ignoring new data. (For more on our confirmation bias see Thinking, Fast and SlowSources of PowerBeyond BoundariesChange or Die, and Who Am I?.) These ideas are called committed and uncommitted. With uncommitted ideas, we simply don’t care enough to allow the change to move us.

Inside of both committed and uncommitted beliefs lies how the belief was formed. It can be formed directly through our senses, through our perceptions, or through the inferences that we make. When our senses, our perceptions, or our inferences form contradictory committed beliefs, there is the potential for humor.

There are three key ways that the conflict between two ideas can be resolved:

  • Unresolved Conflict– The two ideas are simply filed away without resolution. This happens in cases when the beliefs may not be sufficiently committed beliefs.
  • Cooperative Resolution – New information, a different perspective, or a creative insight allows reconciliation between the ideas and the understanding that they are both right.
  • Uncooperative Resolution – One idea forces the other idea out. One of the beliefs survives, and the other doesn’t.

Humor’s only environment is one where ideas are clashing and colliding and are resolving conflict. In particular, humor happens during the resolution of a conflict – not when the conflict goes unresolved.

Blogging and Resolving Conflict

It might seem like this blog and resolving conflicts might be – well – in conflict. However, that’s not truth. The truth is that this blog exists to resolve conflicts. The blog is designed to prevent me from quietly shelving incompatible ideas by forcing me to reconcile and place ideas in the context of other works. For instance, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Cloud and his work (see Boundaries and The Power of the Other for examples). However, I believe that Dr. Cloud gets it wrong when he says that guilt is the barrier to growth. I believe Brené Brown has it right when she says that it’s shame, not guilt, that imprisons us.

This blog is a very active attempt on my part to connect concepts and ideas from different places and assess whether they’re in conflict or in agreement, and, if they’re in conflict, what I’ll do to resolve the conflict. In the case above, the solution was to realize that Dr. Cloud’s words just weren’t precise. (A new view that allowed both to be right.)

Watershed Events

Recently I was at a taping for America’s Generations by Chuck Underwood. Chuck’s primary thesis is that each of the generations are shaped by the events of their childhood (which he defines as prior to graduation from high school). The idea is that, by and large, our values are driven by watershed moments that occurred as we were growing and forming what it means to be us. From the Challenger Disaster to the Kent State Shootings to putting a man on the moon, we collectively experienced the same general set of events, and this created in us a similar set of values.

One form of humor, however, extracts these common points in time and seeks to connect us to the craziness of the event. It seeks to have us look at them differently. Sometimes if you’re sitting in an open-mic night, which is the standup comic equivalent of a dress rehearsal, you’ll hear a comic try a joke about a recent event, and when he receives a boo instead of laughter, he’ll ask, “Too soon?” In this lies the awareness that shared events are great fodder for humor.

Sometimes recent events are too emotionally charged for people to experience the humor in them. It takes time to distance oneself from the event before the joke can be processed without the internal shame of “how could I think that?” From a humor standpoint, the balancing factor is that the event has to remain memorable. As I write this, Jarred Fogle, the disgraced Subway spokesperson, is still in the news. His problems are memorable, but five or ten years from now they may not be so memorable. There’s a fine line between too soon and too late.

Common Experiences

Jerry Seinfeld made a sitcom about nothing. Seinfeld was much heralded as “a show about nothing”. However, that’s not exactly true. It wasn’t a show about nothing, it was a show about everything. It was a show about finding humor in daily life, in seeing the situations around us as strange and humorous. It was a show about the common experiences that we all have. It’s in the heart of all comedy – in our ability to create compressed stories that allow us to respond to false beliefs that we have in the things that we do.

Relationship to Play

I started this post acknowledging that the drive to finish it was through the interest that I regained through Spiritual Evolution and Play. My interest was in how humor came to be entangled in our DNA, and how play and humor were related. Play is about taking appropriately risky behaviors in the service of improving skills and building bonds. Humor is about resolving errors in our processing and in building bonding. It’s the relationship that both have toward bonding us together that is particularly interesting.

Inside Jokes didn’t resolve the relationship between humor in play. It did, however, remind me that much of what we do is really the result of survival skills. We needed ways to bond with one another to make us whole. We need connection to make us whole. (See The Psychology of Hope for more on our need for connection.) Our behaviors may be more connected to what we need to survive than we realize.


In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough talks about ACE and how this triggers hyper reactivity in the HPA, which makes focus difficult. The Rise of Superman talks about how flow shuts down our inner critic – and how this is necessary for the ability to successfully enter and maintain flow. Flow is such a productive state that people unable to enter it will feel like they’re unable to keep up.

Sometimes with jokes, it’s necessary to shut down our inner critic. If you want to get Inside Jokes, maybe it’s time that you let go, relax and see if you can find some states of inner conflict that your critic can let go of.