Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why (Book Review)

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Everyone appreciates a joke on some level. The content, timing, and appreciation levels certainly differ from person to person, but humor seems to be one of those universal human experience things. Another item on that list is the constant asking of why. Why do we laugh? Why do we find anything funny? What’s the point?

The book Ha! sets out to answer those questions and other about the nature of laughter. The goal isn’t to answer them from a philosophical point of view, but more from a biological point of view. What purpose does laughter serve in the brain and what can we learn about how the brain processes information based upon the fact that we use laughter?

The theory proposed in the book has to do largely with conflict resolution. The brain enjoys figuring things out. When it figures something out it makes itself feel good with a boost of the chemical dopamine. Jokes require you to figure something out. When you get a joke you feel good and when you feel good you laugh. It would be wrong of me to imply the book is that drawn out over 250 pages.

There is a lot more covered in this book. A brief history of how comedy evolved through the 50s to today. Humor’s affects on the healing process are examined. Differences between the sexes in terms of when are more likely to laugh are brought up. Plenty of studies and tests are brought up to support each point, but the book never drags itself down with too many citations. Things keep moving at a good clip so you’re on to a new angle before you’re really bored.

My favorite chapter in the book involved a look at why we have such a hard time teaching computers to recognize humor. The examples of computers trying to write jokes are great both for their accidental comedic value and what it tells us about what jokes are funny. One of the computer written jokes was, “What do you call a device that can fly?” Answer: An Airplane Hanger! Did you laugh? I know I didn’t. The reason the computer thought it was funny though was because it had clothes hanger classified as a device, so it was going for double usage with the word hanger and hangar. When it was laid out like that I could understand what the computer was trying to do, and those are reasonably conclusions the computer made based upon its assumptions. The joke falls flat, and in so doing tells us exactly how tricky constructing a good joke can be.

The author does warn you that the book is not designed around helping you to be a funnier person, merely understanding what makes a funny person. The last chapter does include an account of the author going to an open mic stand up night just to get the experience though. It is just one of the many anecdotes in the book that keeps things light and will help many of the author’s points stick with you well after reading. If you’re interested in the interview with author that convinced me to add to this book to my reading list you can read or listen to it here[1].

It feels relevant, so I’m going to close this review with the single greatest joke I’ve ever read. It is the yardstick I measure all of my humor by and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell a joke that will top it. The great comedian, writer, and co-founder of Monty Python John Cleese was answering questions from fans on a website. Each of his answers was brief and brilliant. After around a dozen snappy one liners, someone asks, “You seem to be a man of few words, could you tell us exactly how may words?” John Cleese answered, “Two.”

 

★★★★★ – Well written, informative, accessible, and humorous. Everything I could ask for in a pop science book.

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