Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The problem with agreeing with yourself

Ha Ha Ha

Laughter ... did someone just tell me a joke? Maybe I heard an a particular piece of music? Or perhaps I am an insane screwed up individual who is on a rollercoaster?

The origins of why people laugh was discussed in a lecture I attended today. The speaker proposed that we laugh when there is a contrast between what two parts of our brain are telling us. He offered this joke as an example:

Two fish are in a tank ... one says "so how do you drive this thing?"

Initially, a part of your brain called the amygdala acts first. It controls emotional reactions and produces confusion, a negative sensation. There is a tiny delay and then cortex reacts, understands the pun, and cancels out the bad sensation the amygdala produces. As a result of this delay and contrast, we laugh.

In the case of humorous music, a tune will deviate from what we expect causing a negative emotion from the amygdala (since the brain's job is to predict the future correctly) but then the cortex kicks in to remind us it's just music, there is no threat, so again we laugh.

Finally, we were offered the comparison of two people on a rollercoaster, one of whom is enjoying it and another sane person who is not. As the foolish idiots who embarked on this ride of doom riders go up and down and upside down, both their amygdala produce an emotion akin to "Holy crap, we're going to die". In the case of the person who loves the ride, the cortex cancels this out a moment later, knowing rashly and with very little evidence that there is no real danger. The person bursts out laughing. For the second individual (a.k.a. yours truly), the amygdala says:

"Holy crap, we're going to die"

and then the cortex follows it with:

"Damn right."

This person is not laughing. No.

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