Wandering, as I am wont to do, along the littered, soft gravel shoulders of the information superhighway, I stumbled across an interesting article last week in the online edition of The Boston Globe. The article’s title, in part, reads…
Why Our Brains Make Us Laugh.
My first thought was, “Why do we need or even want to know why the brain makes us laugh?” Let’s face it. Nothing ruins a joke more than trying to explain it.
The Boston Globe article states…
He who laughs last usually has to have the joke explained. But then why bother? After all, nothing kills humor faster than analysis… It’s just a joke: Don’t overthink it. But what if humor (or mirth, in research speak) is intimately linked to thinking? What if we’d have trouble thinking without it? That’s the argument of “Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind” (MIT Press, 2011).
As someone (supposedly Johnny Carson) once put it, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You can open it up, examine it and figure out exactly how it works… but the frog rarely survives the process.” 
Hard as it might be to believe by reading my present material, in my early years I took comedy quite seriously. Seriously enough, in fact, to read Sigmund Freud’s publication on the topic, “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.”  So naturally, when I tripped over this article, I was intrigued by the idea of a study on how the mind processes humour.
The authors of “Inside Jokes” (you have to admit, it is kind of a cute title), begin from the idea that our brains try to make sense of our daily lives via a never-ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions.
But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes. It is crucial, therefore, for the brain to constantly undertake a relentless ‘seek and destroy’ mission on as many of these self-induced errors as possible.
(aka Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten)
And it is at this point that humour comes in. Mirth… that little pulse of reward the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humor is the lure that keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality. As “Inside Jokes” argues, much of what we consider comedy takes advantage of this cognitive reflex, much as McDonald’s taps our evolved taste for high-energy food.
The brain is a complicated machine. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Clement Dennett once described human brains as “Chevy engines running Maserati software.”
(Brainwork, like the comedy business, is not funny)
Humans think prodigiously. In every situation, the human brain needs to constantly anticipate the future by making assumptions about the world that unfold at breakneck speed. This often results in errors. Finding and disabling these errors is a critical task. But it’s a resource-hungry job that has to compete with everything else our brains are doing. It’s very hard. And taxing. And not a lot of fun, really. So what’s in it for the brain? What’s the payoff for all the effort put into finding and correcting its own mistakes.
Well, basically, the brain has to bribe itself to do this important work. And how does it bribe itself? It bribes itself… by making the discovery of its own mistakes enjoyable. It makes it ‘funny.’
The pleasure of humor, the emotion of mirth, is the brain’s reward for discovering its mistaken inferences!
But if a sense of humor is part of our basic, human thinking machinery, then why can’t we agree about what’s funny?
As co-author Hurley puts it, “What’s universal about humor is the process, not the content. Everybody faces every situation with different beliefs, knowledge, and understandings about the world. And different understandings lead to different assumptions and therefore different false assumptions.”
A sense of humour is more than just a valuable asset for a thinking being. It actually helps reduce the mistakes one makes and acts upon.
Well, there you have it, boys and girls… The ability to detect humor actually improves one’s chances at getting by in this world.
Who’d have thunk it?
 I’ve since discovered the quote. “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” E.B. White.
 Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, published in 1905. Riveting stuff. No, really. It is. You should read it, if you are truly interested in humour and how the mind processes it.