Wednesday, January 27, 2010
In search of the root of laughter, Descartes, Freud and Spencer chose to explore an aspect of laughter with which any philosopher or scientist would naturally choose to begin: the physiological. In these excerpts on laughter, the three philosophers and scientists examine the function of laughter in the body and unravel the circumstances in which laughter is necessary, while also exploring the external factors that actually evoke laughter. This physiological approach is incredibly unique in comparison to articles we have previously read. Instead of focusing on the emotive and mental processes involved with laughter, these authors begin their investigation with physical laughter itself, attempting to understand it by applying its features to the three theories of laughter.
If one were to combine the physical arguments of these three philosophers, the most accurate theory to which they would apply is the Theory of Relief. Often in a humorous situation, the listener is nervous or anxiously awaiting the end of the story, unaware of what is to come. When the story takes an unexpected turn toward a humorous end and the listener finds himself both surprised and deceived, his body is relieved and physically demonstrates this relief by the “sudden” (or ‘surprising’) flow of blood into the heart, which enacts other muscles in the body to release the built up nervous pressure through the phenomenon of laughter.
To me, this argument makes the most sense in relation to the innate root of laughter. When a baby laughs, she does not feel superior to another object, nor is she aware of any incongruities. Contrarily, her body is naturally geared to laugh when it is surprised by a new or surprising situation. Her laughter is simply a safe form of relief for the tension built up by confusion in her body.
The arguments of Freud, Spencer and Descartes do not explain all forms and reasons for laughter, but they do make a strong case for the physiological reason; the innate reason that is our foundation for laughter from infancy: relief, pleasure and relaxation.
Clamping my mouth shut, I mumbled a swift and overly embarrassed, “Sorry,” before ducking my head down in shame. Due to my shoddy American deciphering skills, his heavy northern British accent was no match for my said skills. I honestly thought he incorporated “dancing moose,” into the interrogation. I truly believed that he was cracking a joke due to how blatantly nervous I was. Therefore, jumping on the opportunity to laugh my brains out, I snickered when he repeated “dancing moose,” again. Too bad I have forgotten what he actually said, but the most important fact is he was asking me wherein England I was going to be staying (for how many hours) and why in the world did I not memorize the address of the final destination.
I was an American who dealt with the friendly and receptive smiles of Belgian officers for the previous months due to my year abroad in Leuven. What I had intended to do was jump on the Eurostar from Brussels to London and then take a series of trains, by myself, to visit a long-time friend stationed in a remote town that the winds of history failed to acknowledge. Already near-convulsing due to the nerves firing throughout my body, I was overly receptive to all sorts of humor to help alleviate the tension. Therefore “dancing moose,” was the spark that ignited the fuse of my funny bone… and I was gone for a solid minute. Perhaps two.
Now, Spencer and Freud would gladly dance around this particular example because I became the poster child of their theory. A young girl travels alone and has the responsibility of lugging herself from point A to point B, which just so happens to be nearly an entire-day’s worth of travelling, I repeat, by herself. This story has a happy ending, though. The young girl happened to share a four-top with a rich man whose racehorse won something akin to the Kentucky Derby and bought the entire car a nice round of Stella Artois. The last bit was irrelevant, but I felt the need to insert it somewhere. Regardless, I was a cornucopia of emotion ranging from excitement to abject horror. According to Spencer, since I had undergone such incongruous mood swings and didn’t properly divert them, they manifested in the form of laughter at the cue of “Dancing moose.” My rebellious laughter upset the stern border control personnel, who then proceeded to judge my country for my poor reaction. But then again, I hardly understood a word of his thick accent, so I reflect on this event rather fondly than with shame. Hey, I made a fool of myself in front of a man who reminds me of that serious officer from Hot Fuzz and didn’t get tazered; rock on!
Now, Descartes would have a field day with that last remark. Since I am theoretically depreciating myself, I am therefore scornful and more than obliged to partake in some healthy respiratory exercise. Hobbes would jump like an excited Chihuahua at that remark since I am subconsciously expressing hatred of the Simon Pegg look-alike. Freud and Spencer would then join the party of tearing apart my personal experience with British officers and disregard the sheer ridiculousness of the entire situation. It’s amazing how all these men have belittled humor to make it either asinine or spiteful. I laugh at this instance because of how a simple misunderstanding created such an unnecessary situation. Although I walked away from Mr. “Dancing Moose” with a chafed pride, I cannot help but find this particular moment a true gem of a classic “Megs moment.” I tend to have a lot of those
Decartes’s point about us being pushed into laughter when something happy occurs in front of us, and not when we are sad is a very interesting point. We do not have the same reaction to sad things as we do to happy, and I think it’s interesting how he puts that. Like Spencer he discusses the body reaction when we laugh, specifically the lungs and the heart. When we laugh we breathe differently, thus oxygen gets to our lungs faster because we are breathing much harder. The blood gets to our heart so that we don’t, in his words “pass out”. Like Spencer he is intrigued about the biology of laughing. I personally don’t think we as human beings think about this when we laugh. It is far too technical of a thing. Most of my pre-med friends, whom I discussed this with never thought about it either. I feel it is something worth discussing because we do go through bodily changes when we laugh.
Freud is brilliant. His example of the criminal going to the gallows shows how the criminal himself is using his own situation as an object of humor. He connects this by talking about the way writers make characters humorous, whether real or imaginary. We as the audience are affected by this humor, and find it funny. My own example of this is when I read the joke about the criminal being killed on Monday, and I did laugh out loud. Freud’s comment of the humorist and the hearer is true today. We as people imagine a different scenario when in fact, the teller (humorist) meant to convey something totally different. We laugh, and sometimes it is the not the reaction that the teller had in mind. I agree with Freud in the observation that the listener might be a “copy” of the humorist, or attempting to put themselves in his or her shoes. It is a reaction based on the listener entirely, and not an object of the humorist himself.
Last week of classes and the stress of finals are building. It’s my first semester of college and I really don’t know what to expect. My roommate Julie, our floor mate Fiona, and I venture to the library in hopes of getting a good cubby and putting in some hours. After some studying we realize that we are hungry and need to get dinner. Julie has her car on campus and we unanimously decide to treat ourselves to an off campus dinner. Get a change of scenery; be slightly rebellious by abandoning our study stations. We need to relieve some of the stress. We decide on Chick-Fil-A, our trio’s guilty pleasure. We chant “Chick-Fil-A! Chick-Fil-A! Chick-Fil-A!” as we lug our heavy tote bags to the car and pile in. We spend the next hour in the food court at Towson Town Center, reminiscing about our semester. We laugh and joke about all of the silly first year mistakes we made and some of the best nights we had that semester. We eventually make it back to campus, spirits high and laughing nonstop. One of the girls keeps imitating someone we all knew and the joke keeps building. My stomach aches because we are laughing so hard. All of a sudden, I feel the need to puke. I’m walking between Julie and Fiona, just in front of the Diane Geppi-Aikens Field. I double over and throw up. I don’t think anything of it, and keep walking to catch up to Julie and Fiona. At this point, they are doubled over in uncontrollable laughter. They are close to tears.
“Did you just throw up?” asks Fiona.
“Yeah,” I respond.
“Do you feel okay? You just kept walking, ” says Julie.
“Yeah, Haven’t you ever laughed to the point you’ve thrown up?”
“No!” They both respond at the same time. We all look at each other and the giggling begins again.
“I guess we can go back to studying now,” Julie says with a laugh.
In this situation, my friends and I were stressed about due to workload and completing part of the transition to college. We needed an outlet to take our mind off of our actual worries. Spencer states, “laughter is a result of the pleasure we take in escaping from the restraint of grave feelings... mirth is caused by the gush of agreeable feeling which follows the cessation of unpleasant mental strain,” (105-106). We had spent all of our energy for the past week on studying and worrying about our academics. The minute we took a break from “mental strain,” the energy that had been dedicated to stress, needed an escape. The escape happened to be laughter. Everything we talked about in the car rides and dinner had been funny, funnier than it should have actually been. We could barely get through a few minutes without finding something else to laugh about. Freud similarly states, “We prepare ourselves for feeling fear, pity, or some other negative emotion; but then we realize that we need not be concered, so that the energy summoned for the emotion is suddenly superfluous and available for discharge in laughter” (111). The ability to take a break from the anxiety allowed for the energy to redirected in a more positive way. Also, in a way to help relieve some of the negative feelings we had all been having. It helped to make studying seem bearable again.
Another aspect of humor touched upon in the Chick-Fil-A adventure is that Julie, Fiona, and I felt that we should have technically still been studying. Or at least have been eating dinner in Boulder and making a quick return to the library. Instead, we decided to take what felt like a more bold dinner excursion. Freud writes, “Humor is not resigned; it is rebellious,” (113). We thought our trip to the food court was comical in that we felt what were doing seemed inappropriate under the circumstances. In order to cope with proceeding in actions we felt were not right, we just had to laugh about our choice and make the best of it.
Also, the other physical effect of certain emotions needs to be addressed. I threw up from laughing. Spencer states that “Joy, disappointment, anxiety, or any moral perturbation rising to a great height, destroys appetite; or, if food has been taken, arrests digestion;” (103). In my case digestion didn’t just stop but made itself not a viable option. My anxiety over finals taken over by the unexpected happiness from the study break caused my food make an appearance for a second time. The digestion process just halted and reversed from the amount of pure laughter and energy spent on relieving stress.
Most people laugh so hard, they pee their pants. I laugh so hard, I throw up.
Descartes claims that laughter can accompany wonder, mild hatred and of course joy. Why does in include hatred as a potential cause of laughter. This seems counter intuitive and inappropriate. Descartes writes that when laughter is rooted in this mild hatred that the cause is scorn. He claims that this is a mixture of hatred and joy with joy remaining in a greater proportion. At first upon reading this passage I struggled to recall a personal anecdote which supported this claim, until I thought back to approximately 15 minutes before beginning to write this post when I was silently chuckling at my roommates' uncleanliness. I was actually laughing out of mild hatred, or scorn (as Descartes would call it).
After this realization that Descartes might just have known what he was writing about all along, I decided to take a second look and try to match some of his scenarios to real life examples. I was met with significant success. Firstly in Descartes's "Article 179" which he titles "Why the least perfect are usually most given to mockery," I found a nugget of truth. This works in two different ways, in my opinion. First I remember that in my high school, there was a boy to whom I will refer as Ted. Ted was as close to a bully as any boy in the entire school. Because the all boys private high school was joined with its companion middle school which Ted and I had both attended I knew something about Ted that most of the incoming freshman (his favorite targets) did not. I knew that through middle school, Ted had been mercilessly bullied for his weight and myriad other pointless imperfections. He, as Descartes predicted was most prone to "mockery." (Descartes 24) To provide an example of this i recall a friend of mine, who is blind, and another who is dyslexic. Both of these people do not hesitate to make fun of themselves so much so that I have occasionally felt uncomfortable. These two people seem to wish to openly acknowledge their imperfections before anyone else gets the chance to notice or even talk about them.
Spenser in his discussion of laughter and humor offers a treatment of nervous laughter which is my personal favorite of the awkward inappropriate laughters. As a musician and competitive rock climber I have found myself laughing nervously before, during and after performances and competitions most especially when the all eyes are on me. At the most embarrassing possible moment....of course. Thankfully Spenser was kind enough to reassure me that I am not the only person who suffers from this psychological element of the human condition. Both he and Freud agree that this sort of nervous laughter is an emotional overflow valve. (Freud 111)
The only conclusion I am able to draw from this examination is that my initial assumption that these types of laughter are inappropriate was completely off target. These causes of laughter seem now to be perfectly healthy conditions of humanity.
Isn’t it annoying how one week your favorite food is good for you, and the next week it causes cancer? Or how you can go from one doctor to another and be diagnosed with two different ailments for the same exact symptoms and test results? Shall we blame modern medicine? Perhaps, lord knows there are enough malpractice suits out there to suggest some people find this the most viable option. However, there is also the irrefutable fact that sometimes a general rule is just, well, a generalization. With something as complex and enigmatic as the human body, there can be no hope to explain away all of your particular bodily features and functions with a neat set of rules and theories. Our current study and readings in class are an attempt to understand such theories about the bodily function of laughter, and though I find that I have had experiences that fit each of the various explanations, there is still something lacking or unsatisfactory in the certain conclusions that they draw.
In testing out whether or not I agreed with the ideas of Spencer, Freud, and Descartes, I tried to think of recent things that had made me laugh. I finally landed on an incident that I am still embarrassed to admit laughing at. The fateful day occurred upon finishing a run with my roommate last year. We had ended at Boulder Garden Café and I had to stop into the bathroom to pull my hair back off my face before I browsed the food selection. I caught the door and walked in as someone was leaving and I guess since I hadn’t made any noise coming in, the other person in the bathroom felt safe and alone. Before I could take one step further they let out a tremendous sigh and the loudest fart I had ever heard. My response was immediate and uncontrollable, and had I not been near the bathroom door I might not have made it outside before my laughter erupted. I cried from laughing so hard.
But what was so funny about it? I don’t typically find physical humor to be funny, and let’s just say that though my brother has laughed many a time at farting in my presence, it’s never once made me giggle. I couldn’t find any explanation in Descartes’ theories, except that I wasn’t laughing from joy. I don’t really have cause to feel happy about someone else’s bodily function. However, I also didn’t find any admiration or hatred in it. I had no scorn for this person – after all, I didn’t even know them! Sure, farting is a natural part of the body and, as far as I know, does not detract from them as a person. In fact, if I thought someone had done it by accident, knowing I was there, and potentially being embarrassed by it, I wouldn’t have laughed at all because I would be so uncomfortable by causing them to feel awkward. Thus, I know I’m not laughing at someone else’s discomfort.
And Freud didn’t quite cut it either. I didn’t have a particular sense of superiority. Since when does “Not farting” count as a worthy achievement? Additionally, I didn’t find it in a sense of relief of escaping suffering in anyway. I wasn’t feeling anything in particular when I entered into the bathroom, except maybe a bit disheveled from running. I didn’t escape any feelings or have any fear of suffering coming on, so I wasn’t partaking in the higher form of humor as relief that Freud theorizes about.
Only Spencer’s theory, devoid of thoughtful emotional attachment to laughter, seemed applicable in this situation. I was certainly surprised by the event. My body, standing still as I was, had no outlet for the emotion. It wasn’t deserving of further thought because it was not exactly a profound sentiment that the other person uttered by the toilet. My only outlet was to put my body into motion through those naturally used outlets, and I couldn’t suppress it or control it – this energy had to be released. It is a bit different from the sneeze example and the tumble example that Spencer uses, however, because I had no nervous tension or great expectation upon entering the bathroom and I also had no sympathy for the person since they were unaware of my presence and thus would feel no embarrassment. Even this description, set to explain away the simple reactionary laughter, was still lacking in full detail. The only conclusion that I could draw from this mysteriously funny fart was that sometimes laughter just happens. Though we have studies that often help us to produce it and understand it, it is still like all other things connected to human emotion – very situational. Laughter is not something you can dissect and frame up into a standard measurement of joy or write off as good or bad.
To go along with the notion that our body does the laughing, look at Spencer. Spencer outlines the meaning behind the "hydraulic theory" in which "nervous energy builds up within our bodies and requires release through muscular movement" (99). He talks of the three "channels along which nerve centers in a state of tension may discharge themselves" (102). Excitement is passed from channel to channel, and if one channel is "closed" or not accepting excitement, then the other channels must take the excitement in. The result of this is muscular contractions. To Spencer, "laughter is a form of muscular excitement". This theory is such a technical one that it makes us look at laughter in a completely different light, almost as if we hardly control it at all and that our bodies and muscular movements are the building blocks to our laughter.
So I have to ask, do we have a choice whether we laugh or not? I believe Freud says we do, but not so directly as we may like. Just as Spencer, Freud also saw laughter as "an outlet for psychic or nervous energy". However, while laughter is a very physical process, we as people have the choice to the types of attitudes we have, and Freud says we can adopt a humorous attitude and we can also observe those with the humorous attitudes. Both put one in a position to ultimately laugh or find humor. Still, humor is a very deep principle to grasp as it is very physical in the sense that it provides pleasure and is a liberating element for the person. While there is so much more to go along with these three authors, I felt it necessary to point out the physical aspect of laughter and how we may not always have as much of a say in our reactions as it may seem.
In the hopes of relating my personal experiences to these readings, I feel it necessary to point out a section of Spencer's excerpt. Spencer writes, "If any one wishes to check intellectual excitement, he cannot choose a more efficient method than running till he is exhausted" (103). This quotation made me want to talk to Spencer right as I was reading it because I just believe he is so completely right. I am a runner and there is nothing more therapeutic for me than being able to run as fast as I possibly can. As Spencer says, "under great irritation we get relief by walking rapidly" or in my case by running rapidly. While this doesn't relate too much to me laughing in life, it goes along with the fact that your body can release amazing amounts of energy through activity, just as Spencer is trying to prove. For me, bad energy is excreted forever once I go out and run. It's almost as if I sweat it out with every step. I have to agree with Spencer when he says that running until you cannot run anymore is the true and most effective way to release that energy and to MOVE ON! If you are having a bad day, and you are sitting and sulking in your room with all of this negative energy just clogging everything up inside you GO OUT AND RUN! YOU'RE BODY NEEDS TO RELEASE THAT ENERGY just as it needs to release it when you hear a hilarious joke and just need to laugh. Our bodies are amazing things, so let them do what they do best.
Freud also picks up on this theory when he says, “It is from the saving of expenditure in feeling that the hearer derives the humorous satisfaction” (112). Essentially, Freud says that laughter is the manifestation of “conserved energy” that was built up and then not needed or used. This is much like Hau’ofa’s method of building up to a joke that either climaxes in some sort of “punch line” or deflates. According to Freud, we laugh at these instances because we have pent-up unused energy. As many people have said before, we laugh because “we don’t know what else to do.”
Sometimes that last-resort expression of laughter is appropriate. In Hau’ofa’s case, he builds his stories and then changes their direction in an effort to evoke that kind of response in his reader. However, sometimes the laughter is inappropriate or unwelcome; at least it is not the expected reaction of the “audience.” I have a dear friend who is generally very quiet and shy. Yet, when she finds herself in awkward social situations, she will laugh at even the slightest joke, and her laughter rings out louder than any word she has ever spoken. (Sometimes this makes the situation even more awkward… and then I find myself laughing too because I don’t know what to do either!)
Another example I can cite from every day life is the way one feels when he or she wants to laugh but can’t. How many times have I been in class—or worse, in church—and someone whispers or writes a hilarious side comment but I can’t do anything about it because of the context. (My sister and I can’t sit next to each other in church anymore because this has happened too many times.) My stomach and throat are actually in pain in these situations—it is not pleasant at all! And yet, sometimes, the fact that I want to laugh but can’t makes the situation even funnier, which makes me want to laugh even harder, and the pain increases as I firmly clamp both hands over my mouth. I think Spencer and Freud are right when they say that laughter is the manifestation of energy that simply can not be “released” in any other way—I have felt the pain of trying to hold that energy in too many times!
Spencer also says that sometimes that energy can be absorbed by another strong emotion. In some cases when I really need to, as my father would say, “straighten up and fly right,” I try to think of something that will evoke a completely opposite emotion, like sadness or anger. For me personally, this practice doesn’t always work. Usually these kinds of thoughts will only calm my laughter for a short time, until I start to think about the situation that caused my laughter in the first place, and then I return to a stomachache and a sore throat once more.
On a slightly unrelated note, I also have to say that it seems to me that Spencer is the theorist with the broadest sense of the causes of humor that we have studied so far. He writes, “It is not a sense of the ludicrous, only, which does it; nor are the various forms of joyous emotion the sole additional cause. We have, besides, the sardonic laughter and the hysterical laughter which result from mental distress; to which must added certain sensations, as tickling, and…cold, and some kinds of acute pain” (104). While Descartes’ ideas seem to bridge the superiority theory and the incongruity theory, I like the way that Spencer takes even more emotions and situations into consideration when he discusses the humorous than previous theorists have. I still do not think that his theory is completely “sufficient” (partly due to the fact that his science is most certainly out of date), but I appreciate his slightly more “universal” ideas. I think our class would agree, considering that we have discussed how many different factors have to come into play in order for a particular person to find a particular instance funny or not.
While reading the excerpts from Sigmund Freud, Descartes, and Herbert Spencer, I thought of a particular (and might I say hilarious) instance. When I was an RA, I would often leave my door open so that my residents could pop in with any questions, concerns, a quick hello, or just to chat. This particular evening was one of the first few weeks of school and three girls from the floor stayed in my room for hours on end, sitting at my kitchen table, eating, talking and laughing. One girl, Frankie, ran downstairs and got a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to snack on while we talked. She ate it rather quickly and washed it down with a big glass of water. I suppose something particularly funny must have happened (I cannot quite remember) because suddenly Frankie projectile vomited watery ice cream down her shirt and onto her legs amidst a splutter of laughter and coughing. The other two girls were disgusted and possibly embarrassed that I had witnessed such an absurd series of events, but I threw myself onto my bed in a fit of laughter that went on for what seemed like ten minutes.
When I read, “Humor has in it a liberating element,” (Freud 113) I thought about Frankie because once we had opened ourselves to the hilarity of the situation, there were no more barriers to knock down, nothing to hide behind, no reason to pretend. Our friendship became genuine, accepting and (obviously) filled with laughter. Freud continues, “A man adopts a humorous attitude towards himself in order to ward off possible suffering” (Freud 114). Frankie and I laughed. Right there amidst the vomit, the empty Ben and Jerry’s container and the Clorox wipes, we laughed. Frankie could have easily “suffered” in embarrassment or shame, but she laughed, cleaned up, changed her clothes and came right back to sit at the kitchen table and continue our conversations. Reading about the purposes and the effects of laughter made me realize how vomiting up ice cream can really do for a relationship. Frankie was comfortable enough with herself to laugh, I was comfortable enough with myself to laugh; we were liberated, but our outward expression of unrestrained laughter liberated the other. She avoided the feelings of embarrassment and shame not only by her own laughter but also in our laughter, in the wordless physical expression that laughter held for us. She didn’t need to apologize for making a mess and I didn’t need to assure her that I didn’t care—the laughter said it all.
Herbert Spencer, however, writes, “Generally a large amount of emotion disturbs the action of the intellect, and interferes with the power of expression” (Spencer 109). I found it odd that a natural, involuntary “expression” might impede “the action of the intellect” and the “power of expression.” Yes, I can see that it may be difficult to take someone seriously if they are showing signs of “a large amount of emotion,” but why is this so? Do we lose rationale when we laugh or cry or is this merely a socially constructed perception? How much do emotions truly “disturb the action of the intellect”? What is the relationship between emotion and intellect? In Spencer’s statement, emotion and intellect are pitted against each other in a dichotomous relationship to one another, as one increases, the other decreases. Furthermore, intellect is valued more than emotion is; emotion is something that “disturbs” and “interferes” with the prized intellect, but in our readings and conversations about humor thus far, I question both the relationship and the hierarchy Spencer presents. Descartes, echoing Mark Twain’s “How to Tell a Story,” writes,
As regards the modest bantering which is useful in reproving vices by making them appear ridiculous, so long as we do not laugh at them ourselves or bear any hatred towards the individuals concerned, it is not a passion, but a quality pertaining to the well disposed man which gives evidence of the gaiety of his temper and the tranquility of his soul. (Descartes 24)
The capability of “reproving vices by making them appear ridiculous” is “a quality pertaining to the well disposed man,” according to Descartes. The art of humor is something that stems from intellect and ignites both the heart and the mind. In laughing at the absurdity of a situation, be it something we are or are not related to, gives us a new perspective, which is the surprise value that Descartes claims makes us laugh in the first place. We laugh because we see something we have never seen before or something we have seen a million times in a completely new light. Humor makes people think. It’s the best of both worlds, an emotional release and a rational expression that has the power to build relationships.
After reading the philosophies of Freud, Spenser and Descartes, I began to reflect on my own opinion of the true nature of laughter, separating it from humor as a physical entity of its own. I came to the conclusion that I consider the essence of laughter in the physical sense to emerge in uncontrollable laughter. Whether it be due to an uncomfortable situation, inside jokes with a friend, or from a line in a book or movie, sometimes laughter is just insuppressible and even unwarranted, and you just can’t explain what exactly is so funny. On the other hand, sometimes laughter is an uncontrollable release of other more complex emotions we didn’t even know were lurking within us. In these cases when laughter is a purely physical and inexplicable reaction, the theories of Spenser, Freud and Descartes dive in to explain this natural human response. I had always believed that laughter and comedy went hand in hand, but the philosophers we read this week shed new light on the complexity of the “muscular excitement” that is laughter.
In part two of the work of Descartes, he explains the physiological actions and effects of laughter, which he describes as “explosive” (22). I thought this word choice perfectly suited the concept of uncontrollable laughter, which explodes forth from a person with power and passion. Spenser says these “muscular movements…occur independently of the will, or in spite of it, illustrat[ing] what physiologists call reflex action” (100). I find this to be especially true when I get the case of the giggles. I can be walking in the quad remembering something funny that happened, or simply catch the eye of my friend during class, and the giggles begin in an “uncontrollable discharge of energy” (Spenser 104). And once I realize how crazy I look laughing uncontrollably for no apparent reason, I laugh even harder. Is this latent nervous energy that I’m releasing? I don’t feel like I’m nervous in any of these situations. When I looked up the word “nervous” online, I found the definition “highly excitable” on Dictionary.com that seemed to fit well with the idea of laughter as an energy release. But is it merely the Relief Theory that causes this? Does humor (and all its many facets) trigger the release? Or is it a hysterical response to something unnamable within us?
Sometimes people laugh so hard they cry, or cry so hard they laugh. As we discussed in class, sometimes people laugh to deal with grief or in response to stress, or even about something sensitive to strengthen the bonds of relationships. Sometimes it might just be to strengthen ourselves in the face of hardship. Whatever the case, there is some overlap of emotion that occurs in laughter, that is more than a release of nervous energy or the pleasure of superiority. It draws something form the very core of us and our deep and sometimes unconscious feelings, and I don’t think this is something that can be fully explained scientifically or otherwise. Freud touches upon this when he talks about laughter as liberating. He states that the super-ego tries to “comfort the ego by humor and to protect it from suffering” (116). This explains how laughter has a tendency to express and even assuage pain. Maybe the release of energy that the philosophers describe is actually a defense mechanism for self-preservation. I’m not saying that this is always the case. I think the qualities of humor we have discussed, that induce laughter from incongruity, superiority, and the comic in general, are separate from the idea of laughter as releasing energy or as stabilizing the torrents of emotion within us. I realize now how multifaceted laughter actually is, and it might make me think twice about what’s really going on inside of me next time I get the case of the giggles.
My girlfriend has had a very close friend since high school, and I’ll be honest, she’s a bit of a character. Standing about five foot five, she is slender and equally intelligent, currently studying at NYU, and prides herself in disliking things that others, en masse, like. Yes, she is the ever-confident nonconformist. Growing up in an affluent and predominantly white neighborhood, just like hers, I could identify the fact that she wanted to stick out and at the same time hide from the world.
Considering herself a citizen of the entire world rather than of any small Maryland suburb, she fell in love with the romantic misfits of New York City. Here her differences were embraced, and yet she could still do her best to stick out—sort of an incongruent cohesiveness, a heterogeneous mixture if you will. However, I daresay that she was still somewhat surrounded by upper-middle class citizens, most of which were white. Despite the backdrop of New York City, her main contact was with the student body of the prestigious university, not the residents of the diverse metropolis surrounding her, and although NYU does reside in an extraordinarily diverse environment, around fifty percent of its student body is made up of white/Caucasian students, and thirty percent of the student body is Asian.
My point is not that Loyola is or is not overwhelmingly diverse—cough cough white suburbia—only that this girl was not experiencing what might be called the height of diversity. Eventually, she became romantically involved with another student at NYU. Their relationship began to escalate and she could often— and I mean very often—be heard saying, “How could I be with anyone else?”
Well, months passed and very recently the two decided that it was time that they try to explore other avenues (so that’s what they call it) of life, and they parted ways. In passing I told one of my roommates that the pair had called it quits and with a laugh that he had no intention of hiding he said, “ How could she be with anyone else?” We laughed. Another roommate of mine chimed in, “Maybe she just needs a little chocolate.”
I was puzzled. I looked over at the six foot five Nigerian whose bright white teeth shown in a grin that was radiant against his night-dark skin…his “chocolate” skin. At once my other roommate and I took his meaning and soon we were all three in fits of uncontrollable laughter.
At first, it was his simple phrasing and unexpectedness that made us laugh, but on further thought, the idea only grew more hilarious. A little, white NYU student coming home to her two high-earning parents in a town where people kept a close eye on Democrats, let alone a wandering six foot five Nigerian from Baltimore. “But, Daddy, I just needed a little chocolate.”
I’m not sure whether or not Descartes, Spencer, and Freud would consider the laughter that my roommates and I expelled at this absurd thought completely physiological. Perhaps it goes along with the Relief Theory more than I though at first. After all, the breaking up of a loving couple is not often something that elicits fits of laughter. Perhaps Freud was on to something when he said that the hearer copies the mental processes of the humorist. I, for example, felt no inkling of humor in the fact that the two had broken up, but when my first roommate laughingly made a comment, I laughed along with him, perhaps releasing other emotions that could have potentially arisen from the ending of someone else’s relationship. Spencer might have seen my second roommate’s comment as an unexpected one that allowed my other roommate and I to release even more physical ‘anxiety’ I suppose.
Like the theories we have read before, I don’t think that the ideas of Descartes, Freud, and Spencer are wholly true. However, I do think that they comment on important aspects of humor (especially considering the human body) that might otherwise be overlooked. These philosophies do not encompass all aspects of what we ourselves know as humor, but nonetheless they are important factors to consider in the search for what makes us laugh.
Understanding how things work always intrigues me, and I know some people will have a problem with understanding why scientists need to place reason with everything. Although the mere presence of laughter is amazing, I would love to take a look behind the scenes to understand my body, so in a sense I guess it’s sort of a controlling feeling of empowerment, the ability to know what is occurring on in our own bodies. Now knowing that laughter may be caused by a rush of endorphins doesn’t complete the understanding of laughing. In my Developmental Biology course we covered the main three forms of evidence: loss of function, gain of function and correlative evidence. The concept of endorphins is an example of a correlation, and therefore not a strong conclusion. The concept that endorphins might cause laughter still is not a fact that can stand alone, just because there is a rush of endorphins doesn’t mean that the endorphins are the main cause.
I think that this study of laughter is a study that hasn’t been looked at enough and for right now laughter remains a mystery on a physiological level (and maybe should stay that way). Sometimes you may have no clue as to why you may be laughing. For example, the other day I was walking on campus and kind of ‘people watching’ as I ate my lunch. I began to notice that most of the people walking together were laughing, but not laughing at a joke, more like laughing after a normal comment. I found this bizarre, but when I called my dad (you know the everyday catch-up with your parents), I began to notice that I was doing the same thing. I would naturally/subconsciously laugh after a regular statement. This made me think of laughter on a more sociological level, that this habit of laughter just begins to fill the empty space.
I guess the little understanding of laughter that we have on a physiological level makes me feel uncomfortable, as I begin to look at another possible answer as to why there is no real in-depth grasp of why/how we laugh, I begin to think that maybe laughter is just situational and that it all depends. Like what we discussed in class everyone has a different idea of what is funny, however, what we all do have in common is when we see something that we think is funny( the said action )occurring, we can’t resist the temptation to laugh.
While reading the the definitions of humor by Freud, Spencer, and Descartes, I realized that some of the posts contain some aspects of their definitions. There are posts that describe awkward situations diffused by a comical occurrence that leaves all involved dissolved in laughter. There are also a substantial amount of "that's what she said jokes", which hearken to Freud's theory of humor as an outlet for suppressed feelings and emotions. There are also a lot about finding the humor in the inumerable amount of hardships that occur during the course of one's life.
I guess that if Descartes, Spencer, and most definitely, Freud, ever had the chance to read the humorous stories posted by everyday people on mlia, each could find some support for their theories concerning humor. Out of everything, mlia is a good example of the universality of humor, how it can connect people across cultures and geographic boundaries, and of how important it is in everyday life.
My family has one, not-so-enforced (but very much encouraged) rule of the house: no crying; or rather, no crying if you’re emotionally wounded; that is, no crying if I call you fat and mean it and you sit there with your head cast down, sniveling about your love-handles. There is an overriding presence of “Suck it up” under the roof I call home, and should your eyes ever start watering because one of us said something mean to you, well, you’d be better off getting sympathy from a psychopath.
Instead, we opt to deal with your watery, emotional excretions by way of making you laugh. My sister was upset that I had called her annoying, and, being in her preteens, she automatically assumed that what I said meant that she was a ne’er-do-well and the recipient of everyone’s unchecked hatred (not true). So as she sat on the floor with a pillow over her face failing to hide the fact that she was crying (my brother and I could hear her), I gently prodded her with my toe and said, more or less, that she looked ridiculous. I asserted the silliness of her response to my harmless insult until she got up and furiously yelled, with tears streaming from her red, bulging eyes, that “It’s not funny.”
But it was.
After that exclamation, she buried her head back under the pillow and assumed the fetal position, and I took out my camera and started recording her hysterics with even more insensitive commentary.
“This is Julie crying. She’s been going at it for about five minutes now, though I don’t know why. All I said was that she was annoying…blah blah.”
My brother laughed, I laughed, my sister tried to avoid the camera lens (how she saw it with her face beneath a pillow, I don’t know), and this went on until she got up in a fit of rage and tried to wrench the camera from me. I used it as an opportunity to show her what she looked like as a bawling curled up form. “It’s not funny,” she said, and then she giggled while repeating the same thing. “It’s not funny.”
While I’ve been of the opinion that any serious discussion about the physicality and visceral aspect of laughter is a heap of quackery, Spencer had me rethink my opinion. His relief theory, while certainly not applicable to every sort of laughter (he says his explanation “applies only to the laughter produced by acute pleasure or pain” (105)), is one way to interpret why people, like my sister, shift from what appear to be two different emotional extremes: crying and laughing (pain and pleasure). He says that “there are three channels along which nerve centers in a state of tension may discharge themselves” and that “rarely, if ever, does it happen that a state of nervous tension present to consciousness as a feeling, expends itself in one direction only” (102). The act of laughing, then, is one way—one channel—in which this accumulated emotional energy is expelled from the body.
So, in the case of my sister, it was simply a matter of redirecting where her intense emotional buildup flowed out: crying or laughing. Spencer also later states that “among several persons who witness the same ludicrous occurrence, there are some who do not laugh, it is because there has arisen in them an emotion not participated in by the rest, and which is sufficiently massive to absorb all the nascent excitement” (107). I’d assume, then, that the opposite, the occurrence of something originally not funny and changing it into something laughable, is possible so long as the emotion that is generated is large enough to absorb all the “nascent” distress initially present. The grumpy, moody channel is shut, and the comedic, laughing one is opened.
With the help of Freud, my seemingly thoughtless and hurtful method of dealing with my sister’s weeping is further justified (though I’m not going to assert that it works all the time). He writes “By [humor’s] repudiation of the possibility of suffering, it takes its place in the great series of methods devised by the mind of man for evading the compulsion to suffer” (113). By trying to make my sister laugh amidst her tears, I was perhaps attempting to suppress her pain, something, Freud says, is a natural tendency of man: to avoid suffering. This, of course, makes me look like the good guy and casts my apparent insensitivity in a soothing light.
I’m not going to say that crying and laughter are nearly synonymous (though sometimes we laugh until we cry), though the relation between the two is understandable especially with respect to Spencer’s and Freud’s takes on a relief theory on humor. So perhaps the motto at my house should be (and here I’m going to quote BBC’s television program Robin Hood. Sue me): “I’m not crying; I’m just laughing on the wrong side of my face.”
In one of my all time favorite guilty pleasure movies, The Sweetest Thing, Christina Applegate tells Camereon Diaz “50% of what we say when we are joking is true.” After reading Spencer, Descartes, and especially Freud I believe that all three would agree with this statement. All three focus mainly on the release of nervous laughter, laughter as protection, laughter as a reflex, and ask what happens when the laughter stops?
Descartes’ main argument is that laughter can only exist when joy or wonder is mixed with scorn. He claims that in any laughter one can find traces of hatred. This idea of laughter intermingled with hatred brings to mind the “evil laugh.” The evil laugh is present in most comedies and can either be hilarious or menacing. For example in a horror movie a villain’s evil laughter can invoke fear, where in a sitcom a character’s evil laughter can cause the audience to laugh along with them because the evil laughter in that scenario is not vindictively cruel. This occurs because of Descarte’s argument that the evil present in laughter “must be small” (p. 24).
He claims that there is a vast difference between being evil natured and mixing slight hatred with humor. This is evident when someone jokes and it is “all talk.” The subject matter in the joke is malicious but the fact that the person telling the joke would never do such a thing, therefore the joke is acceptable. I find Descartes idea that laughing naturally leads to sadness. This question of what happens when the laughter stops is valid and incredibly deep. Most people tend to joke and laugh about horrific events and do so to lessen the pain. When the laughter is over the sadness begins to sink in. That being said, is laughter used to cushion our pain futile in its attempts?
Freud’s take on laughter is quite different than Descartes’. Freud’s argument on laughter focuses mainly on the “hydraulic” theory of psychic energy, better known as the Relief Theory. He claims that laughter is an escape from forbidden thoughts, a “safety valve” (p. 111) through which our emotions that pour out are uninhibited. This is evident in the fact that we use humor as a defense mechanism, to say what we really want to say without having to deal with the consequences.
For example, when I get upset I tend to make inappropriate jokes about the person I’m upset with. Many tend to be like Descartes, racked with disdain and contempt. I know that I will never do half the things I claim to be so willing to do in my jokes therefore I need not deal with the consequences, ahh relief. Freud focuses on humor’s “liberating element” (p. 113). He states that there is a triumph of narcissism and that the joke teller is impervious to the harshness of the world. This is the idea that laughter is invincible, untouchable, and safe.
Spencer’s theory of laughter is somewhat Freudian but focuses mainly on the physiological elements of laughter. All I could think about throughout this essay is the way my mother laughs. There is no noise. Just air. She heaves back and forth in convulsions while her mouth gapes open and only air is exploding outwards. This got me thinking about how different laughs are. We all have the same anatomy, same physiological makeup, so in Spencer’s theory shouldn’t we all laugh the same? Perhaps the blood rush to the heart is measured by how affected a person can be by certain types of humor. This would solve the mystery of why there are so many different “senses of humor.” To get a little scientific, if we must breathe in order to survive and breathing is only an expulsion of air, could you make the argument that the release we feel when we laugh is just as vital to our well being? I’m sure Freud, Spencer, and Descartes would.
“The principal thing is the intention which humor fulfills… Its meaning is: ‘Look here! This is all that this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child’s play – the very thing to jest about’” (116)! They are kind of funny, right? The little lies we tell ourselves about life problems, school problems, relationship issues: I’m always safe, I’ve got tons of time to write that paper, We’ll always be friends, or in love, or together. Freud’s argument struck me, in particular, because it so greatly contrasts with my own perspective of the humorous. What I took as his main point is this: our reason, our super-ego, the father figure of the mind, in all its infinite parental wisdom, lies. It flat-out lies to our juvenile, immature ego. And while I tried desperately to argue the opposite, I found myself agreeing because I’ve seen this at work:
One of my very best friends from high school, Steve, went away to college while I began my senior year. About three days before he was meant to come home for Christmas break, he went to the emergency room because of a headache he’d had for almost 48 hours and was immediately admitted when doctors discovered a three inch blood clot in his brain, preventing blood from flowing continuously to his heart. To top it all off, he was living every athlete/college student’s worst nightmare: no more playing lacrosse (he was captain of our high school team) and no more alcohol. Ever. Well, that is not funny. Or, it shouldn’t have been. But it only took about a week and a half, a couple MRI’s, his release from the hospital, and a prescription for blood-thinning medication for his entire family to start laughing it off. We were all having dinner one night when Steve’s sister said, “I told Mom and Dad we should just bubble-wrap your head for safekeeping.” Then his brother told him, “That is the best thing that happened to you this semester: you don’t have to take any finals.” And on and on, and Steve laughed with the rest of them like we were sitting in some comedy club having drinks and lasagna while watching the show. When I asked him why in the world everyone thought a near-death experience was knee-slappingly funny, he said “First you told me not to cry over losing lacrosse and beer and now you’re telling me not to laugh. We’re running out of emotions here, so what else am I supposed to do?”
And in a really big, glaring way, I think that’s true. We talked in class about laughter being healthy, a physical exercise of sorts. In cases like Steve’s, I think laughter is like self-medicating… with the healthiest medicine there is. Even though, to this day, I don’t find those few weeks and subsequent months of doctor’s visits and blood tests funny, I understand why he felt the need to make them so. In that way, Freud made another good point: “…it is not everyone who is capable of the humorous attitude” (116). But ultimately, his humorous attitude towards his own situation served him much better than my laughing at his situation would have anyway. Laughter, in the presence of despair, does, as Freud says, highlight a type of liberation from vulnerability. It is a coping mechanism, as we’ve said in class, but I think that in this case it also seems to be a component of hope. Who was it who said, “If you can laugh at it, it can’t be that bad?” I think Freud, in labeling humor a sort of sane-and-rational-delusion, misses this key element. Yes, we’re lying to ourselves in a way when we do this, because we’re trying to convince ourselves of an invincibility we most certainly do not possess, but it helps us move forward. If we allowed that vulnerability to control us, we’d be locked away in our houses with the windows boarded. Don’t we have to feel a little invincible to live our lives? In that case, I don’t disagree with the idea that laughter is a shield of sorts, meant to protect and delude us. Because really? I don’t want to know how vulnerable I am. Steve’s use of humor, similarly, convinces me of another of Freud’s points: “humor possesses a dignity which is wholly lacking, for instance, in wit…” (113). His humor that Christmas served a distinct and noble purpose: to comfort him and remind him that he survived the worst and, with a little more laughter and luck, the worst was definitely over.
Neither Spencer nor Descartes provided arguments about humor that I’ve ever seen illustrated in the real world. On the one hand, it’s possible to make the argument that Steve’s humor was “…evidence of the gaiety of his temper and the tranquility of his soul…” because he found a way to laugh at the very thing that almost killed him. In some ways I feel this is true, and in others, simply saying it feels as though I’m stretching the boundaries of what I actually believe too far. Much of Descartes’ argument, in fact, anchors laughter in hatred and scorn. In particular, article 179 caught my attention because it reminded me of another friend from high school who had one of the most debilitating speech impediments I’ve ever heard. He was, almost naturally as a result, the class clown. He made fun of everyone and I mean everyone. However, I don’t think this was because he actually “rejoiced at the evils” which befell our classmates. I think his sense of humor was simply the result of wanting to be accepted, and it wasn’t that he saw “all others held in as low estimation as” himself, but that he just wanted to deflect attention from his speech. (And laughter doesn’t require too much articulation)
Spencer’s argument, once again, seemed more focused on the physical action that is laughter as opposed to its causes. He seemed to be discussing not so much why we laugh, but how. I did agree with his argument that suppressed feeling or energy leads to a more intense outburst, but I don’t see how laughter fits perfectly into the structure of this argument. I don’t think that humor is so intensely physical, even though laughter is a physical representation. I think Spencer’s argument lacks attention to emotion, to the state of mind that recognizes humor for what it is. We all know what happens when we laugh because we feel our bodies react. But what makes one person laugh doesn’t make another person laugh and that fact speaks to the element of a person’s personality, his or her disposition. I don’t think that simply labeling laughter as a physical consequence of excess energy speaks to its actual causes. Laughter cannot be reduced to a simple formula, and that’s what Spencer seemed intent on creating.
Overall, Freud’s argument seemed most able to be represented in the everyday. Although lacking the component of hope, he clearly illustrated much of what we’ve already discussed in class, painting laughter as a sort of security blanket we never want to put in the wash.
In the past few years I’ve experienced many social changes; transitioning from high school friends and teachers to those at Loyola, joining clubs to get to know more people, and even quitting the summer job I had for years at a sleep away camp to stay at home with my friends and family. Whenever I become a part of a new social setting I try and compare it to what I had before. I ask myself countless questions: Do I like this school? These people? Do I still want to be a member of this organization? All of these are attempts answer the biggest, and most ambiguous question of them all: Am I happy?
Happiness is something that is hard to gauge as each experience is different from the other. They have all taught me different things and comparing them only seems unfair. One thing that does remain consistent is that laughter and funny people are a very important element to my happiness. I love to make jokes and having people around me that can make me laugh as well as laugh at my sense of humor gives me a comfort and joy that results in the happiness I search for.
I have used this idea of laughter to come up with a system that I use to figure out if I am happy, if I like the people I am with, and if I enjoy what I am doing. The process is quite simple. I look back on the memories of the people and situations I have encountered and think about if they had made me laugh so hard that I cry. I find this to be sensible measurement of how happy I am as this type of laughter is rare and can only be brought about if I am comfortable around the person and the joke is a result of an understanding of my sense of humor. If a person or group of people can make me laugh so hard that tears stream down my face I know I feel a bond and I feel included. Even more so, I know that they understand my sense of humor and I understand them, resulting in a loss of control and an expression of uncontained, vulnerable happiness.
I thought this system was perfect until I cam across Spencer and his ideas behind emotion. I agreed with his statement “The deepest grief is silent grief” (103), as my ultimate expressions of anger or sadness do not result in wild movement. However, I never thought to relate this to joy. According to Spencer, my uncontrollable fit of laughter and tears would not be an accurate judgment of how happy I am, but instead, this completely physical reaction would be a displacement of emotion. Spencer claims that instead I should be looking for moments when my happiness is so overwhelming that I cannot express it physically and it overtakes my entire body.
Although his argument and the science behind it made sense, I could not help but think that my system was not completely wrong. When I look back on those moments I associate them with ultimate happiness and it seems that if this type of laughter has occurred, I really do love what I am doing. I still don’t think that this is coincidence. I found relief when I read further on in Spenser and he explained “In general, bodily motions that are prompted by feelings are directed to special ends; as when we try to escape a danger or struggle to secure a gratification. But the movements of chest and limbs which we make when laughing have not object” (104). So maybe I wasn’t too far off, and laughter’s purpose is to gauge joy. This may seem stubborn, but I refuse to believe that laughter serves no purpose as it has brought me so many friends and memories. So until tears, uncontrolled movement, and a loud embarrassing cackle give me the sense of a different emotion, I think I’m going to stick to my system.
I’m sure I am not alone when I say the affect of laughter on the body is not necessarily interesting to me. I have never really been a science person and learning about energy and anatomy is not my cup of tea. I guess I am one of those people who don’t need to understand why things are a certain way but rather accept that they are. With that said, while I don’t fully understand (or care to) why laughter makes us feel so much better I completely agree that it does.
I am an officer for Loyola’s Best Buddies chapter. Best Buddies is a group that matches college students with adults who have developmental disabilities. Every month an event is planned on campus for the members to interact and see their buddies and at least one other time during the month members are required to spend time with their buddy doing what we call a “one-to-one event”. Gallagher services are where our buddies live and they are involved in a weekly bowling league.
Last Saturday, a group of members went to cheer on their buddies and offer them support as they bowled. I will admit that I woke up extremely tired and became frustrated as the day began. I was driving one of the motor pool vans with a group of members and we ended attempting to follow less than clear directions to the bowling alley.
We finally showed up at the alley and I went and sat with my buddy, Amy, who I might add, was being very stubborn. I sat on a step beside her and she immediately told me to get a chair she also demanded diet coke and after both of those things happened she was instantly happy. As I was sitting with Amy another buddy managed to trip down a stair and stumble towards the lane, thankfully he was ok. Amy and I continued talking and she continued bowling. About fifteen minutes after that other buddy tripped Amy started laughing and said to herself, “he skipped a step, this one” and she pointed in his direction.
Obviously, Amy’s intent was not malicious but hearing her say that and then point was so funny I couldn’t help myself. This is one of those moments where you had to be there, I’m sure but another college member saw the whole thing and both of us found it absolutely hysterical.
After seeing Amy have so much fun and say some of the funniest things I forgot about how tired I was and all of the other struggles the day presented. Whether it was shaking my insides or redirecting energy that made me feel better is not really a concern of mine, rather, the fact is that laughing made me feel 100% better.
But when we got down to GMBC’s pharmacy, there was a large mob/line of Baltimore locals who were a bit more unruly/aggressive than the patrons I am used to seeing at my own local pharmacy on Long Island. They were all shoving eachother and shouting their prescriptions, insurance information, and general (and in some cases seemingly unrelated) complaints at LaJuana, the 30-something, heavy-set African American woman who was working the counter. After surveying this intimidating scene for a couple minutes I came to the conclusion that LaJuana was no-nonsense; she meant business. So accompanied by my two friends I slowly worked my way through the mob to the desk, and gave LaJuana my prescription. The trouble though, was that I didn’t have my insurance card on me. I tried to explain this to LaJuana while intermittently taking pause to make another deposit into my blood cup, but I was still talking like Donald duck (but with less clarity) so she started to get annoyed/perturbed/dismissive of my pleas. My friend Keith stepped in to explain to her the situation and he ended up calling my mom to get my insurance information to give to LJ so she could put it into the computer. She seemed a bit annoyed, to say the least.
That seemed simple enough so Keith and our friend Maureen went to sit on a bench in the hallway to wait. But then LaJuana came back looking pissed-off and kind of sassy. She snapped at me that I wasn’t covered by my family’s insurance plan and she couldn’t give me the antibiotics. I took out my phone and called my mom back, who had been growing increasingly worried (and I was later informed by my 5 siblings that were home at the time, “on-edge”) since she had first received the call from the Loyola health center 6 hours earlier that I was going to the hospital for the medical condition she had pleaded with me to get treated 5 days earlier. I did my best to articulate to her what was going on while being shoved and nudged by the other patrons of the packed in-hospital pharmacy, and still all the while spitting a surprising amount of blood into my Dixie cup. It took a little while to be able to get the message to her (“They say I’m not covered by the insurance—won’t give me medicine”), and that pushed her a little further over the ‘edge.’
She just kept yelling that she couldn’t understand what I was saying and that they had to give me the medicine and that I was covered by our insurance. I tried to tell her about LaJuana and about how strict she was but she couldn’t understand what I was talking about. I was so tired too because I hadn’t slept more than an hour a night since the pain had started two days before. My mom was nearing her breaking point and just started yelling “PATRICK I CANNOT UNDERSTAND ANYTHING YOU'RE SAYING, GIVE YOUR CELL PHONE TO THE WOMAN AT THE DESK RIGHT NOW AND LET ME TALK TO HER.”
However there was no way in hell I was pushing through a hostile mob of Baltimore urbanites to the front desk of the GMBC pharmacy to give LaJuana, the most intimidating woman I’d ever met, my cell phone and tell her to talk to my mother to work out my situation. My mom just kept repeating that though, and as Keith and Maureen recount, I came bursting out of the pharmacy doors and walked down the hallway screaming completely incomprehensible statements into my cell phone. I remember walking down the hallway, away from Keith and Mo and the pharmacy, trying to explain things to my mom while she yelled instructions at me, my throat hurting like a bitch, being so goddamn tired, thinking about all of the finals/papers I still had to study for/write, spitting into my blood cup, being scared of LaJuana and the mob in the pharmacy, realizing how completely confused Keith and Maureen had looked when I blew by them, and I just started laughing. At first just a smile and a chuckle but it soon escalated into hysterical laughter which lasted for about a minute (which made my mom exponentially more frustrated/confused). I told her I’d call her back (I don’t think she knew what I said) and hung up. I walked back in and saw LaJuana, who told me someone had entered my insurance information into the computer incorrectly and that was why I wasn’t coming up (I was too afraid of her to point out that she was the only one working…). She entered it correctly and it went through.
She gave me my meds and we left. The kicker, though, is that as we walked to Keith’s car, I had a sudden realization, I turned around and looked at the ground of the path we had walked since leaving the hospital but nothing was there. Maureen asked what the matter was. I answered her: “I don’t know where my blood cup went.”
Whenever I tell this story, if I tell it right, I can usually get a few laughs with it. And part of that is perhaps because of the whole superiority theory, and because of people realizing what an awful situation it was and being glad they weren’t a part of it. Part of it is also probably just from a lot of it being so absurd. But some of it also might be because of some of Freud’s ideas about laughter. When I tell this story to friends, I think I am enacting both of the laughter-producing scenarios that Freud describes. Freud’s first scenario is that a person adopts a humorous attitude, and the spectator (second person) derives enjoyment out of the humorous attitude of the first person. In a way this is what is going on when I tell this story, because I adopt a humorous attitude about something that has happened to me, and in portraying it in a (hopefully) humorous light, whomever I am telling the story to is getting some kind of enjoyment and laughing. However in the second scenario, a first person (for instance, an author of some kind) shows adopts a humorous attitude that shows a third person (real or fictional) in a humorous light that a third person is able to derive enjoyment is able to derive enjoyment from. When taking the story into account from that perspective it seems logical that as we tell stories, as ‘truthful’ as we think we are being, a lot of times to a certain extent we are creating fiction. I know I am guilty of this, especially when I am telling a story and trying to make someone laugh. I embellish a bit, and I exaggerate, and usually I don’t even realize that I am doing it, but even when I do it seems almost worth it if it’s going to make the story funnier. So in that sense maybe I am kind of created a character (namely my past self) when I tell this story to friends, and though that character is in a frustrating situation and not ‘trying to be funny’ at all, both myself (in retrospect) and whomever I tell the story too, are able to enjoy a humorous attitude about the events.
Lastly I think it’s interesting to look at the actual point when laughter emerges in the story. When I started laughing on the phone, it is grossly apparent that there was no real happiness surrounding my situation. So why did I laugh? Descartes says that in some cases laughter proceeds “from the joy that we have in observing the fact that we cannot be hurt by the evil at which we are indignant” (23). Freud echoes similar sentiments, and describes humor and laughter as our own ego’s narcissistic triumph over the reality of potentially stressful or harmful situations (113). Finally Spencer argues that a buildup of nervous energy can be released through muscular contractions, in some cases laughing. If there is any credibility at all to these three aspects of these writers’ respective arguments, they can all provide a feasible response to the question ‘Why did I start laughing on the phone in the GMBC hallway?’ There were a lot of things at that moment that were making me extremely nervous; LaJuana, my throat, my finals, my mom. There was this intense buildup of nervous energy due to all these stressful factors in my immediate environment, and laughter was a release for that. It was a way for a minute to just realize none of these things were going to threaten me in any serious way. I was essentially invulnerable while I was laughing, and afterwards, I was able to much more calmly deal with the situation at hand.
Descartes, Freud, and Spencer all touch upon the physical response that laughter elicits. While Descartes proposes that laughter must accompany some level of wonder or hatred, Freud and Spencer look to tease out the more complex workings of the human mind and of human nature. Each are concerned with the “hydraulic” theory and the accumulation and repression of nervous energy. Freud took this theory further by relating laughter and the release of nervous energy to the subconscious’s handling of pain or suffering. He recognizes the “liberating” element of humor, but is most interested with the super-ego’s attempt to bolster the ego through humor in order to protect it from suffering (116). If laughter is the culmination of repressed nervous energy, it will not always be expressed under the most fortunate of circumstances. Although I have not begun my service yet, I can relate other service experiences to this Relief theory Freud is taking up in his essay.
When a young student was absolutely humiliated by her teacher, the rest of the class proceeded to laugh in an awkward, yet lively unison. My immediate reaction to their laughter was to explain to them that this was not funny and they should not be laughing. Typically, when you ask kids to stop laughing they may not comply immediately; however, when I gently suggested that maybe they should not be laughing in this case, they immediately ceased their laughter (the teacher and student were not in the room). While this student was being humiliated, the class was quiet; it was only afterwards that they began to laugh. This particular moment seems to be precisely what Freud is talking about. I would say that the students were using laughter as a defense mechanism after witnessing such an uncomfortable, inappropriate event.
Because the act was not funny, and because I do not think that the students truly found it funny, I recognize their laughter as a means for releasing their repressed feelings in regard to this incident. Humor or laughter attempts to safeguard us from pain: “By its repudiaton of the possibility of suffering, it takes its place in the great series of methods devised by the mind of man for evading the compulsion to suffer- a series which begins with neurosis and culminates in delusions, and includes intoxication, self-induced states of abstraction and ecstasy” (113). Essentially, the class implemented laughter as a way of coping with the pain they had endured at the humiliation of their fellow classmate, but did they really escape unscathed? Descartes may have assessed this situation differently, but I would like to give people more credit than that. Not all laughter is rooted in hatred for others.
This particular example is not exactly the cheeriest of some, but it does shed light on one of the ways humor and laughter may be utilized. People say that a great deal of Freud’s work has since been disproved, but I am personally a fan of many of his ideas, and think that they are interesting and worth considering. In this instance, Freud’s theory of the repudiation of suffering indicates how laughter may not necessarily be the antithesis of pain, but rather serves to combat it.