Why Scientists Want to Use Quantum Theory to Explain Why Jokes Are Funny

It's generally thought that when you have to explain why something is funny, it wasn't funny in the first place. Of course, when you're a scientist, explaining how things work is your M.O. That might explain why there's a small but growing field of scientists who are trying to come up with a unifying theory of humor, with some even using quantum physics to do it.

The Science of Joke Dissection

Attempting to explain humor with science is actually nothing new. As Dr. Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, the authors of The Humor Code, write in Slate,"Plato and Aristotle introduced the superiority theory, the idea that people laugh at the misfortune of others. Their premise seems to explain teasing and slapstick, but it doesn't work well for knock-knock jokes. Sigmund Freud argued for his relief theory, the concept that humor is a way for people to release psychological tension, overcome their inhibitions, and reveal their suppressed fears and desires. His theory works well for dirty jokes, less well for (most) puns." Today, most humor experts stand by what's known as the incongruity theory, or the idea that inconsistencies between your expectation and the actual result are what create humor. That has its weaknesses too: sure, you don't expect a joke's punchline, but you also don't expect a car crash. The former makes you laugh, the latter definitely doesn't.

Regardless of the theory, there are some good arguments to be made for studying why some things make us laugh and others fall flat. Happiness research is an important and growing field, and since laughing makes us happy, it makes sense that happiness researchers should study it, too. Humor has a range of benefits, not only for a person's physical and mental well-being, but for society as well. There's also an economic angle: every company is looking for the next hilarious Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" or Wendy's "Where's The Beef?" commercial, since a funny ad can go viral and spread the brand far and wide. But when a "funny" commercial falls flat (Groupon, anyone?), it can be a PR disaster. It pays to know what will work ahead of time.

A Neutron Walks Into a Bar

It's that incongruity theory of humor that underpins Dr. Liane Gabora and her team's proposal to apply quantum physics to humor—especially puns. An important element of quantum theory is the concept of superposition, or the ability of a particle to be in many states at the same time. That's what Dr. Gabora's research says is happening when we find puns funny: it's not the sudden change in meaning when we get the joke that makes us laugh, but our ability to perceive both meanings at the same time. Humor, the researchers argue, can exist in superposition.

"Funniness is not a pre-existing 'element of reality' that can be measured," Dr. Gabora explained. "It emerges from an interaction between the underlying nature of the joke, the cognitive state of the listener, and other social and environmental factors. This makes the quantum formalism an excellent candidate for modeling humor." Science seems to be a strange area to find out what's funny, but if researchers are successful, maybe the jokes of the future will be even more side-splitting.

How Our Brains React When We Hear a Joke

Written by Ashley Hamer April 11, 2017

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