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Funny How?

[ 0 ] August 9, 2010

The Three Sages

More on humor, courtesy of Machines Like Us:

Is Immoral Behavior Funny?

Caleb Warren and A. Peter McGraw, two psychological scientists from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado-Boulder, argue that violations of norms are laughable, but only if benign.  If I actually shot the sheriff, it would not matter whether or not I killed the deputy.  If I really did it, it’s really serious.  McGraw explains:

“We laugh when Moe hits Larry because we know that Larry’s not really being hurt.  It’s a violation of social norms. You don’t hit people, especially a friend. But it’s okay because it’s not real.”

Here’s a link to a PDF of the paper, published in Psychological Science. Disclaimer:  It is not a knee-slapper.  In fact, the only thing we surely don’t need science to tell us is that the easiest way to ruin a joke is to explain it to death.

The Art of Good Humor

[ 0 ] August 1, 2010

John Cleese is one of the funniest men alive.  The veteran British comedian—who has appeared in classic films such as A Fish Called Wanda and Monty Python and the Holy Grail—is known for a unique blend of high- and low-brow humor.  This, the thirty-third installment of his podcast, is a perfect example of intelligent silliness:

The Brain Explained

(Nonsense neuroscience, but seriously hilarious).


Secret Pleasure

[ 0 ] July 21, 2010

When there is a congregation of young people crammed into a music hall in Brooklyn and some of them are wearing flannel shirts—though it is summer—and dark sunglasses—though it is nighttime—it usually means that a postmodern pagan ritual is taking place.  Most likely, a Band You’ve Never Even Heard Of is performing.  But on July 13 at the Bell House, a diverse audience appeared to hear the un-hip (trust me, this is truly a compliment) Yale cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom talk about his new book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (W.W. Norton and Company.  280 pp.  $26.95).   Professor Bloom called us “the drunkest audience he had ever addressed.”  It was a meeting of the Secret Science Club, which is the second-best secret I have uncovered this month.

Professor Bloom possessed a certain combination of humor and humility that is rare in any person, but especially an academic.  He began his talk by inviting to his e-mail inbox  ([email protected]) any questions and comments that his time onstage might shortchange.  As seems to be the case with most scientific treatments of artistic phenomena, Bloom began by addressing the words of his former advisor—Steven Pinker—who has essentially called the arts inessential.  Bloom, a “card carrying evolutionary psychologist” whose research focuses on children, argues that art is in fact deep.  We are hard-wired to want to see past the surface of pieces of art to an underlying emotional reality of the human condition.  This would explain our obsession with originality; a painting by Vermeer is considered to be a masterpiece until it is revealed to be the work of Han van Meegeren, the master forger.  Though the aesthetic is identical, some essence is lacking.  I believe that art must possess certain properties that appeal—albeit accidentally—to our adapted minds.

Those with avant-garde inklings constantly attempt to make an audience reconsider “What is Art?”  The goal is no longer pleasure, or emotional engagement of any kind.  This amounts to an intellectual exercise.  Despite the fact that all art is inherently intellectual (that is precisely Bloom’s point, that your senses are not enough to explain the experience), these efforts are intentionally extreme.  They are called things like “interesting” or “important” or “experimental” (an interesting scientific staple used differently here in art).  Take—for example—Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.   Although lyrical, the prose has no semantic flow and the book contains hardly a trace of any essential hallmarks of fiction.  But Joyce was a genius writer.  Why?  Independence.  Originality.  He was only trying to write like himself; he mastered traditional forms with Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before breaking the mold with Ulysses.  But when far less talented people are hell-bent on being alternative just for the hell of it their art often becomes essentially boring.

I'VE HAD IT WITH THESE [email protected]#$%^&* SNAKES IN THIS THIS [email protected]#$%^&* MRI MACHINE!!!

[ 0 ] July 20, 2010
NYU neuroscientist Daniela Schiller with an excellent piece in Scientific American about the recent research on courage, linked in last week’s QuickHits:

The Gorilla You Might Miss

[ 0 ] July 13, 2010

Comic by Jeremy Finch

Something strange happened to me on my last day of elementary school.  I was twelve-years-old.  It was around lunchtime and I was sitting in the back of my homeroom class eagerly imagining the so-soon summer when suddenly—behind me—I heard an opening door.  The whole class turned around to see about the sound.  We were all of us utterly stupefied; for in walked a gorilla, followed by the school principal, followed by my mother holding a camcorder.  The gorilla sauntered over to my desk.  He handed me a bushel of bananas, lifted me out of my chair, and started shaking me violently—all while grunting great gorilla noises (“ooo-ooo-aa!-aa!-aa!” et cetera et cetera).  At this point—according to the video tape—my smile fell to a flat-line and I lost most of the color from my face and neck.  Yes, I knew that this was not a real gorilla but rather a human in a gorilla suit.  But still:  What the @#$%?  Finally the gorilla, afraid—he would later claim with uniquely human empathy—that I might faint, unmasked himself.  It was my father!  He gave me a sandwich, did a gorilla dance, fielded some questions, and then left.  By this point I was not too hungry.  Through the window, I saw him taking pictures with some younger children during their recess period.  Yes, I knew this was just my father being himself—a fun-loving ape.  But still:  What the @#$%?

According to the new book The Invisible Gorilla (Crown. 289 pp. $27)—by the cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons—if had I been more focused on Mrs. Lippman, the chalkboard, and intransitive verbs I might never have noticed that gorilla in my midst. The book, its title, and this retrospective insight derive from the now world-famous “Selective Attention Test(over 300,000 YouTube hits). Go ahead, try it.  This bizarre and brilliant experiment—which won the 2004 Ig Nobel prize, given to achievements that make people first laugh and then think—illustrates a phenomenal human limitation called inattentional blindness: if you are not paying attention, you might not see that which you are not expecting.  50% of people do not see the gorilla.  For Chabris and Simons, this result serves as the crowning example of one of the “Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us”—the book’s subtitle.

The Invisible Gorilla (Crown. 289 pp. $27)

The Invisible Gorilla has six chapters, each one devoted to an everyday intuitive “illusion:” of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.  As evidence, each chapter features a mash-up of psychological research and pop culture reference—chiefly from film and television.  The writing is light and clear, though the anecdotes begin to run together and become redundant.  One particular gimmick really got to me, though perhaps it is the fault of an editor.  (After all, writers must stick together and stubbornly blame the editor).  I am talking here about the title of chapter three: “What Smart Chess Players and Stupid Criminals Have in Common.”  Or a section of chapter five, the chapter about cause that has the most serious implications—though woefully under-explored—about our meaning-making species, “What Mother Teresa, Quentin Tarantino, and Jenny Mchy All Know.”  Call it the illusion of relevant relatedness.  To quote the stand-up of Craig Ferguson, that great Scottish sage:  “Yes . . . I have noticed that some things are like other things.”

Chabris and Simons never claim to be writing a hard science book, though.  They are in favor of soft intellectual foodstuffs, which are easier to chew and more likely to be digested by the lay public.  The Invisible Gorilla is appealing and accessible, an undoubtedly triumphant application of the popular psychology formula, and sales will most likely reflect this smooth and shiny presentation.  It is likely, therefore, that Chabris and Simons will have the privilege of publishing another book, which is certainly a good thing.  If you enjoyed Freakonomics and any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books—though Mr. Gladwell is at times a direct target of the Gorilla‘s poop-flinging—you should pick up a copy of The Invisible Gorilla.   Because you never know when your life might be interrupted by an ape.

For more, listen to Daniel Simons, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, interviewed on this month’s Beautiful Brain Podcast:

Interview with co-author Daniel Simons (MP3)

Consilience, Before it was the Buzz

[ 1 ] July 11, 2010

From Aldous Huxley, Literature and Science (1963):


Thought is crude, matter unimaginably subtle.  Words are few and can only be arranged in certain conventionally fixed ways; the counterpoint of unique events is infinitely wide and their succession indefinitely long.  That the purified language of science, or even the richer purified language of literature should ever be adequate to the givenness of the world and of our experience is, in the very nature of things, impossible.  Cheerfully accepting the fact, let us advance together, men of letters and men of science, further and further into the ever-expanding regions of the unknown.

Aldous Huxley

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