Slate has a new article outlining and critiquing five leading theories explaining why humans laugh. I wish I had time to read the new book discussing the topic, but I don’t. I do; however, have my own hypothesis that I’ve been bandying about for years and it strikes me as both original and more explanatory than the prevailing models.
As is the case with all my crank notions, I encourage you to shoot it down.
“Patterns” are the building blocks of human thought, and humans are overclocked for pattern recognition. Not only are we capable of detecting very subtle patterns that arrive via our senses, we’re even prone to detecting patterns where none exist. Whether it’s the “man on the moon”, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, or numerological and astrological nonsense, our appetite for patterns is a voracious one, one that often outstrips supply.
The word “appetite” is operative, as our circuitry is apparently designed to reward the recognition of patterns. In its evolutionarily ideal form, this manifests as not only “learning”, but learning things that improve one’s chances of survival and reproduction. But just as the dog’s reproductive instincts can be misdirected toward the human leg and the human’s digestive instincts can be misdirected toward McDonald’s, this “educational instinct” can be misdirected toward humor.
The wave of euphoria overcoming a person laughing is the body’s way of rewarding the recognition of a pattern. From personal experience, I can attest that I often find myself grinning warmly or even chuckling when reading a line of political commentary that’s neither “funny” nor intended to be “funny”. While I rarely burst out in laughter when I comprehend something insightful, I often cackle with glee when I have a breakthrough or an epiphany.
(Discerning whether this is due to the common thread of pattern recognition running through both humor and learning or whether this is due to the impending madness of a psychologically troubled blogger is an assignment for the reader.)
Humans have been selected very intensely for the capacity to learn, but they must have also been selected very intensely for the compulsion to learn. No other creature’s survival depends as singularly on pattern recognition as ours. According to this model, our neurochemistry would reward us more acutely than it rewards any other creature, thus resolving one of the greater riddles of humor: Why only humans laugh.
Humor’s utility as a social bonding tool is tertiary. Mutually indulging in pleasure-inducing behavior promotes and enhances socialization. We go through the trouble of making others laugh for the same reason we make others meals, and we feign laughter in a social context even when the pattern is unremarkable for the same reason we feign satisfaction while eating unremarkable meals prepared by social partners (sorry, hun…).
The general mechanism of the physical act of laughter isn’t explained by this theory, though the theory points in the direction of a distinct class of stereotyped convulsive reactions to intense stimulation. Especially hungry people often experience convulsive waves of pleasure when feasting, often accompanied by audible moans and groans. Humans orgasming experience similarly spasmodic movements and make similarly nonsensical noises, with the sexual orgasm being perhaps the closest in nature to the act of laughter.