The Science Behind Humour

, Humor

From quantum physics to medical clowning – Russ Swan wonders why scientific attempts to understand humour always seems so, well, humourless…

By the time you read this, I will know whether my suspicions are correct and the whole thing was a big joke. I hope – indeed I almost expect – to wake up on the first of this month to a series of headlines saying more or less the same thing: fooled you. It will be the biggest practical joke in history and, oh, how we will laugh. There will, no doubt, be some who don’t get the joke. There always are. That’s OK though, because humour is something that remains indefinable.

Or does it? As somebody who spends a fair bit of time looking at the physical sciences – things that can be poked, prodded, or otherwise squeezed – I don’t often stray into the realm of psychology or sociology, cognitive and behavioural studies, or the other less tangible branches of scientific endeavour. I expect a neuroscientist would explain this as the result of the way my brain is wired. That same neuroscientist might also tell me that humour is far from indefinable and is, in fact, the subject of serious research all over the world. Go on then, make me laugh.

The quest to understand funny eagerly embraces new developments in other scientific disciplines, from linguistics to cognitive behaviour and, most recently, even quantum theory. Yes, really.It has become a big business, the study of wit and waggishness, served by a number of peer-reviewed journals and, inevitably, an annual international conference. I’d like to attend that, if only in the hope that the post-programme drinks in the hotel bar would be more entertaining than the usual. I’m sure this is pure coincidence, but it’s notable that in 2017 the International Summer School and Symposium on Humour and Laughter is being held for the first time in the USA. I’m sure it will be a hoot.

Despite all this, the unravelling of humour remains an elusive quest. It is 15 years since the widely-publicised Laugh Lab experiment by Professor Richard Wiseman was reported to have found the world’s funniest joke. This early attempt at crowdsourcing came up with:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

It’s a good gag, even a decade and a half later, and follows the classic ‘set-up and surprise’ model that seems to be almost universal in popular jokes. But the funniest in the world? You can’t beat a good pun, and few can compete with the title of a paper in Nature: Chemical Processes in the Deep Interior of Uranus.

Attempts to capture and imprison humour seem inevitably bound to fail, but that is no reason not to try. But few scientific concepts can be as unfunny as the attempt to describe humour with an equation: h = m x s, where the pleasure experienced (h) is the multiple of the degree of misinformation perceived (m) and the extent to which the individual is susceptible to taking it seriously (s). As with any faux equation, the only sensible response is to ask what the units are.

Medics love to explore humour as a potential tool to make people better. After all, they do say that laughter is the best medicine – which is undeniable, as long as by laughter they actually mean penicillin. Even the BMJ has got in on the act in a tongue-in-cheek Christmas special. This included a report that hospital clowns had no impact on distress in children undergoing minor surgery, even though they were in stitches.

What they did not appreciate here is that children and adults alike exhibit one of only two types of personality: people who hate clowns, and clowns. But what of this new quantum theory of humour? Researchers led by Dr Liane Gabora from the University of British Columbia, writing in the journal Frontiers in Physics, propose that cognitive humour can be modelled using the mathematical framework of quantum theory. They show how the bisociation of incongruous frames or word meanings in jokes can be modelled as a linear superposition of a set of basis states, or possible interpretations, in a complex Hilbert space.

To be honest, the one about the hunters was funnier.