What are you laughing at?


And what about you? Do you find it…risible, when I say the name…Biggus… Dickus?

(Monty Python’s Life of Brian)


The human being is not the only animal that laughs, but very likely is the only one that laughs at something. Having the capacity for humour and finding it pleasurable is also one of the universal traits of our species. Philosophers, scientists and writers have racked their brains for centuries about this amazing feature of humans, but in big part it still remains a mystery. Some of the most acclaimed theories about humour (i.e., about why certain things look funny to us, or provoke in us the feeling or mirth, merriment, or joviality) are, for example, that humour is a biological phenomenon related to playing (Darwin), or that it is a way of feeling superior to others (Hobbes), or that it is a way of releasing psychic or social tension (Freud, Bergson), or a consequence of surprise (Aristotle). Most of these theories have so many counterexamples that they are hardly tenable though they can serve to illuminate some aspects of humour. The most popular theory till now is the one that points to incongruity and incongruity-resolution as the main sources of amusement; this theory has distinguished philosophers amongst its first supporters (from St. Thomas to Kant and Schopenhauer, each with a somewhat different interpretation). Most of these theories, however, leave a lot of things unexplained. In particular, they offer no hint about why mirth is usually accompanied by that bizarre physiological phenomenon which is laughter (as well as by smiling), nor about why it is, in particular, the feeling of fun the one we experience when we discover a certain type of surprises, incongruities, etc. (instead, of say, mere enjoyment, or ascertainment).

One pressing philosophical question about humour is whether mirth, beyond being universal amongst human beings, is an accidental trait of our species, or is instead a necessary feature that any super-intelligent being must inescapably have. Stated in different words: are humourless aliens possible at all? By the way, this is a different question from the following one: if we discovered an alien species of a comparable intelligence as ours, could we recognize amongst its diverse behavioural and cognitive capacities some that would be analogous to our ‘sense of humour’ and ‘laughter’? It is possible that the first question has an affirmative answer, but the second one hasn’t, and vice-versa. We shall come back later to this point.

Another pressing mystery about our capacity for humour is why tickling provokes the behavioural response of laughter (being, besides, not a particularly pleasant experience, but one that can often be extremely unpleasant). Connecting this question with the ones of the previous paragraph, if humour is a universal characteristic of rational beings, would tickle-proneness also be one such a universal trait? To me, this seems hard to swallow, in special if we assume that the physiological response to alien-tickles should also be the same one provoked by alien-merriment. Going back to humans, there are reasons to think that the connection between tickling and humour is more than accidental. For example, some studies show that there is a positive correlation between how ‘ticklish’ someone is (or how much he or she laughs when tickled), and how much he or she tends to laugh in other circumstances (or how sensitive to humour he or she is). However, there are also studies showing that being tickled has no effect at all on, e.g., how funny one finds a comedy, whereas the existence a strong neural connection between tickling and humour would lead us to expect the opposite. Furthermore, if tickling-related laughter is only accidentally connected to mirth-related laughter, this would cast serious doubts on the possibility of using tickling (which is a phenomenon quite common in mammals) as an animal, laboratory model to study the evolutionary origins of the human sense of humour as some researchers have attempted to do (see 1, ch. 6).

Going back to the question about the possible universality of humour for intelligent beings, it has been answered in the affirmative by one of the most recent works on the topic2. According to these authors, it is important, first, to understand that real world minds do not think just by ‘logical computation’ (like computers supposedly do), which can, later on, be connected to punishments or rewards; thinking is, instead, a psychologically costly activity governed by emotions. They illustrate this idea referring to Alison Gopkin’s paper on “Explanation as orgasm”3: there are a kind of epistemic or cognitive emotions that permanently drive us or stop us in our processes of thinking, or, as in the case of Gopkin’s paper, of trying to understand something; as the pleasure from sex is a trick of evolution to push us to carry out some activities that from a more detached point of view could be considered ludicrous, complicated and boring, if not just repulsive, epistemic emotions provide us with a motivation to carry out complex mental processes. More specifically, Hurley et al. suggest that thinking proceeds basically through the creation of “mental spaces” (or mental representations of actual or possible situations), in which a relatively small number of beliefs are “active” (i.e., consciously entertained in our short-term memory) during our thinking process, but many more other beliefs (let’s say, “presuppositions”) are in some way helping us to make sense of the particular “mental space” we are thinking about, whereas they are not as fully consciously entertained as active beliefs. One particular cognitive emotion that can be easily identified is surprise: when one of those presuppositions is falsified by some event, we get surprised, even if we had not consciously thought about the former in the first place. Surprise helps us to focus on some features of the mental space that need re-elaboration. Another important cognitive emotion is confusion: the uneasiness we experience when we are confused about something is a psychological incentive to try to resolve the points that bring about the confusion. Equally, the pleasure we find in the ‘aha’-experiences also drives us to perform certain types of reasoning, information search, etc. Hence, in exactly the same way as the variations in our feeling of hunger steer our eating behaviour, leading us both to eat and to stop eating when appropriate, epistemic emotions constantly pilot our cognitive processes.

Of course, the hypothesis of Hurley et al. is that mirth is such an epistemic emotion. It has a different phenomenological aspect than other similar emotions just because it has a different function, in the same way as hunger and thirst feel different, not because there is something more ‘hunger-like’ in being deprived of nutrients or more ‘thirst-like’ in being deprived of water, but just because if our brain had created the same feeling when we need glucose and when we need water, we wouldn’t now what to look for in each case, or would loose time and energy looking for something different from what we more urgently need. This answers (or dissolves) the question of why funny things look funny, instead of (say) surprising or exciting: it just doesn’t matter how one particular emotion looks like (what qualia it has); the only important thing is that it is a different emotion from others and that it is elicited under the right circumstances.

The really interesting question is, of course, what is the function of the emotion of mirth. Dennett and his collaborators propose that this function is ‘debugging’ the incongruences that can exist within the tacit presuppositions of a mental space (whereas confusion and understanding would be more directly related to the inconsistencies between our conscious beliefs). The idea is something like the following: we find pleasurable to discover and repair an occult inconsistency, and in particular the inconsistencies between our own (tacit) beliefs and those of other people (for most of the relevant situations are social ones); our brain also needs to discriminate those cases in which this inconsistency is innocuous, from those in which there is a real danger associated with it; in the latter case, the appropriate cognitive emotion would be ‘relief’, rather than amusement. Humour, hence, serves both as a sign that we have managed to repair an inconsistency on some occasion (i.e., as a heuristic), and as an incentive to try to do it on other occasions, because it has been pleasurable. This would be something like ‘basic’ humour. The fact that mirth produces pleasure (and often an intense pleasure) thanks to the natural working of our nervous system would have led our species to try to find ways of reproducing that feeling as often as possible, and this is, of course, the authors’ explanation of humour as a cultural, and not only a biological phenomenon. So, regarding the question about humourless aliens, the authors deny that possibility: any intelligent being would have the same need of checking for tacit incongruences, and would have evolved some emotion capable of helping with that task. Finally, regarding laughter, they propose that it is a kind of exaptation or co-option; i.e., though there is no necessary connection between mirth and laughter, evolution has used the pre-hominid disposition to (play-related) laughter as a way of communicating mirth to other individuals.

Remarkable as the theory is, I still have some doubts about some points. First, I don’t think that all things we find funny constitute cases of ‘tacit incongruence reparation’; mockeries, for example, can (unfortunately) be very funny for some people, but they do not seem to be based on the discovery and resolution of contradictions (save if we reconstruct them in an extremely ad hoc way). Second, cultural mirth-inducing ‘memes’ are usually much more exhilarating than most of the common, everyday incongruences we can casually discover around us, but the theory affirms that ‘basic’ humour would be an adaptation of the latter, not for the former, and hence, we perhaps should expect to find the latter much funnier. Third, the mechanism of ‘debugging’ suggested by Dennett and associates is rather obscure; they claim it mostly serves to prevent those false presuppositions ‘contaminate’ future mental spaces, but usually, it seems that the failed presuppositions that make us laugh are hypotheses about local events, rather than general regularities about how the work functions, and hence they are not really exportable to future scenarios. And last, but not least, though the assumption that harmlessness is essential to humour is indeed essential for Hurley et al. (for it is true that when an incongruence leads to a serious danger it usually stops being funny), there are cases in which this does not happen at all: we can find risible many things in the least appropriate contexts; actually, laughter can be irresistible even when we are sure that it will lead us to serious problems, as the legionnaires under the authority of Pontius Pilate in the exhilarating scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian could easily testify.


  1. Martin, R., 2007, The Psychology of Humour, Amsterdam, Elsevier.
  2. Hurley, M., D. Dennett, and R. Adams, Jr., 2013, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.
  3. Gopkin , A . 1998, “Explanation as orgasm”, Minds and Machines 8: 101 – 118.

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