Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams, Jr., 2013

laughing.pngIn short, (basic) mirth is the pleasure in unearthing a particular variety of mistake in active belief structures.  117

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The authors set out to explain why humor exists-what adaptive evolutionary function it serves, what causes the experience of humor, and what it tells us about the structure of our minds.

The general argument goes like this: the human brain is in the business of anticipating.  Brains cannot predict everything, so they take shortcuts, heuristics, which allow them to solve important problems more “cost effectively.”  These work most of the time; we wouldn’t be here otherwise.  However, these shortcuts can lead us astray.  Humor is the reward that our brain gives us for noticing that a shortcut we made isn’t quite right, and pushes us in the right direction in a reinforcing manner.

Importantly, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” here.  Just as nothing is inherently “sexy” or “sweet”—our evolutionary imperative to reproduce and consume calories make things sexy or sweet; nothing is inherently funny.  We decide what is funny in a very particular way, as a function of our mental processes.

In essence: our minds unconsciously accept a false assumption, and then discover that this assumption is wrong when it bumps into another that we hold.  We detect our error, and are rewarded for it.  Not only do we avoid the consequences of our mistake, we take great pleasure in discovering our errors.  How fortunate!

With little prerequisite knowledge required, this book gives a wonderful sketch of how human thinking occurs, and more precisely, the dynamics within this system that cause humor to arise.  The authors are clever, witty, and humorous, and there are many excellent jokes in the book, put to good illustrative use.  Some parts of the book are a bit dry and repetitive, but it is, in the authors’ opinion, a complete sketch, so the details are important in defending their ideas.

There are so many important concepts thrown into this book about evolution and thinking.  They come together to make a rather seamless argument to explain the existence of humor.  I’d like to read more on the topic, but I doubt that other books in the field would be simultaneously hard-edged and well-informed without being a humorless (excuse the pun—the lowest form of humor) academic text.

Ideas per Page:1 8/10 (high)

Related Books: The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore; Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban; The Moral Animal by Robert Wright; Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander; Laughter: A Scientific Investigation by Robert Provine; How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

Recommend to Others: Yes-for those interested in humor, cognitive science, evolved psychology, and even just for some witty writing

Reread Personally: Probably something else first, as I’ve read three times now.  But I get more out of it each time.


“but before any of these effects can evolve culturally.  There has to be a genetically evolved basis with a more fundamental rationale, a proclivity that can be harnessed by these social ends, wittingly or unwittingly.” 12

A decrepit man under a heavy burden, five loaves and two fishes among a multitude, and all unfitness and gross disproportion; an instrument out of tune, a fly in ointment, snow in May, Archimedes studying geometry in a siege, and all discordant things; a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a breach of bargain, and falsehood in general; the multitude taking the law in their own hands, and everything of the nature of disorder; a corpse at a feast, parental cruelty, filial ingratitude, and whatever is unnatural; the entire catalogue of the vanities given by Solomon…

The Emotions and the Will, Alexander Bain, 1875     (p. 48 of Inside Jokes)

Comedians, musicians, confectioners, pornographers, and shamans are only five varieties of practitioners who have figure out, by trial and error, how to exploit the underlying biases in our nervous systems to achieve effects their clients crave.  288

In short, the robot would have to be drowning in a combinatorial explosion of possibly relevant anticipation-candidates, and hence—hence—obliged to take risks that lead to unsupervised and unflagged insertions of bugs that could late thwart its serious goals.  297

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.



3 thoughts on “Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams, Jr., 2013

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