08/03/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Future-Directed Nature of Mirth

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In his TEDTalk, my coauthor, Dan Dennett, presented the analogy between Sweet, Sexy, Cute, and Funny. All are universally human emotional responses. Our sweet tooth, our libido, our susceptibility to cuteness, and our funny bone are all "reward systems" that make us want to behave in certain ways. I want to expand on that by talking about two things. The first is the future-directed nature of emotions as motivations and the second is the nature of humor as a future-directed emotion.

How does sweetness motivate us to eat sweet things? Part of the story is straightforward: we like things that feel good. After taking a bite of cheesecake, with the sweetness "right there on our tongue" so to speak, we are happy to continue eating it. But that's not the whole story. We also need to know why we order cheesecake at a restaurant, or bake it at home. How does innately liking sweetness translate into thinking about and seeking out the dessert menu, when there is no ongoing experience of sweetness right there on our tongues to inform us of our enjoyment? A large part of the answer can be found in Antonio Damasio's somatic marker hypothesis. A somatic marker is something like emotional "metadata" (to use a word from modern computer science vernacular) that has been applied to a memory. But it is not simply metadata; rather, these markers create a tendency to re-experience (though in reduced fidelity) the pleasure or pain of the event whenever we recall the memory in any way. When we read a menu and the word "cheesecake" passes in front of our eyes, we relive, in miniature, the flavor and the enjoyment that cheesecake has produced in us in previous experience.

The meaningful effects of sweetness are what it gets us to do later. It encourages future behaviors (shopping, baking, ordering) that will lead to more cheesecake. -- Matthew Hurley

There is certainly more to the picture than just described but, taken as a rough sketch of how emotions help us evaluate possible futures, the somatic marker hypothesis explains the desire for items we enjoy in the absence of the item -- a mere thought about the item, triggered by whatever cause, suffices to get us going. For instance, merely noticing in passing the cream cheese display at the supermarket may trigger us to think about cheesecake -- an enjoyable thought which might then cascade into a cream cheese purchase and an evening of baking.

Now, what this points out is that, while the most obvious fact about sweetness is that if feels good now, what really matters most is that it is a future-directed phenomenon. The meaningful effects of sweetness are what it gets us to do later. It encourages future behaviors (shopping, baking, ordering) that will lead to more cheesecake.

Now consider humor. At its core, humor centers around a positive emotion too. We call that emotion mirth. Since mirth is an emotion, then perhaps the most revealing question about humor is not "what kinds of things evoke mirth?" (Though certainly that is an important and relevant question too.) Instead, we should ask: Despite the fact that mirth makes us feel good when we hear a joke, what does it get us to do later? What future behaviors does it encourage by rewarding us after experiencing hilarious circumstances?

It sounds bizarre at first to say that mirth rewards perception of humor so that we are motivated to seek out more humor. But notice that, if we didn't already know sugars were good for providing energy, then the same answer for sweetness would also sound bizarre: Cheesecake consumption begets more cheesecake consumption. What is this strange cycle for? What is missing from each cyclical answer is the explanation of what good that does us. We know well the answer for sweetness: it is the provision of energy, a beneficial byproduct of eating cheesecake and cherries. So what is the beneficial byproduct of discovering humor in events? Before briefly mentioning my answer to that question, I want to point out that taking this line of thought seriously will greatly constrain what any answer might be: If mirth is an emotion that exists to motivate the pursuit of mirthful experiences, then any theory that claims humor is a trait that detects events of type X in the world, and yet which does not convincingly claim that events of type X would be useful to seek out again, would be missing the point. Rewarding the fact that we just saw an event of type X does us no good unless it directs us towards behaviors that create future benefits. So, if you have a theory of humor, it had better provide a convincing answer as to what measurable benefit you would get from seeking out the experience of humor again and again.

In Inside Jokes, Dan Dennett and Reg Adams and I present a theory that basic humor occurs when we discover that we'd leapt to a conclusion and mistakenly committed to a false belief in a working memory space. The important benefit of this, we suggest, is that discovering these mistakes in thinking saves us from drawing unreasonable conclusions that we might act upon. Mirth's role, as an emotion that rewards these discoveries, is to motivate us to perform the cognitive behaviors that search for those kinds of mistakes in our working memory again, in the future.

One caveat is necessary, though, borrowing again from Dan's discussion: I said "basic humor" above because much of today's humor is not "natural", but artificial, constructed, humor. Jokes and comedy shows are supernormal stimuli--the saccharine and sucralose of the humor world -- that take advantage of our susceptibility to humor and offer us rewards that feel the same (it still evokes real mirth just as sucralose still evokes real sweetness), but for work that may have no real measurable benefit.

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