Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Unified Theory of Laughter (in 10 Words or Less)

Freud, Descartes, and Spencer present very intelligent theories on laughter; however, I do not think that any one of them can sufficiently explain everything about laughter as a result of humor or relief or for the myriad of reasons we laugh. The pattern that is emerging here is that each thinker makes a new discovery concerning laughter and then assumes that it is the final solution, as though they are unaware of other schools of thought. Mistaking this for truth, they fail to see that their discoveries are contributing to parts of a whole.
A friend of mine from Loyola was staying at my home in Pennsylvania so we could return together early for R.A. training, and while we were eating dinner one evening a curious event occurred. He and I exchanged a small anecdote with my father, who made a comment which reminded us of another mildly funny event, which we began to laugh at. As our laughter grew and grew we fell into greater hysterics. Our laughter fed on itself and we enjoyed our mirth for about five minutes straight. Gasping for breath afterwards we exchanged high-fives and joked about how good that felt.
This to me is a clear example of the Relief Theory of laughter in action. It was as if, as Spencer writes, “a large part of the nervous system was in a state of tension.” This would serve as a very good explanation as to why a joke provoked a volume of laughter disproportionate to its “funniness;” however, I feel that elements of Freud’s explanation must be addressed as they are similar. The laughter was definitely “liberating,” yet there was no need to repress any negative emotion, and the relief was not created due to a stressful situation or “the ego’s victorious assertion of its own invulnerability.” The day leading up to that point had been a good one with no negativity.
I believe strongly in laughter or mirth for its own sake, a concept we have yet to read about if it has been developed and expounded upon. It seems that the thinkers of history were intent on finding the ulterior motive of humor, an arduous process that yields worthwhile explanations for functions of humor such as satire, irony, and parody. Yet I cannot help but recall that as my friend and I laughed ourselves to the point of tears none of these thoughts entered into my mind. In the midst of laughter I think it important to remember that rarely will the meaning behind that laughter be present. There is a certain quality to laughter that ignores all reason when it occurs, as Plato would say. Whatever the cause of laughter, its immediate occurrence is (usually) a source of joy and amusement.
Paul Baran was a scientist who developed an algorithm called “packet-switching” for the design of the Internet. His was not the most important work for the Internet, but it was key and he realized that, “If you’re not careful, you can trick yourself into believing you did the most important part when actually, everything builds on everything else,” like pieces of a larger puzzle that form something larger than the sum of the parts. I believe that theories of humor belong to the same idea; each one discovers a new reason for a different type of humor. My own reasoning behind the mirth of laughter only builds on ideas that came before mine and is only a piece of a larger definition of humor. The one thing I think that must never be forgotten is to not assume that your answer is the only one, and to remember that everyone experiences laughter in their own unique way.

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