Tag Archives: comedy

Why are jokes funny? There may be a quantum explanation

Some years ago a friend who’d attended a conference on humour told me I really shouldn’t talk about humour until I had a degree on the topic. I decided the best way to deal with that piece of advice was to avoid all mention of any theories about humour to that friend. I’m happy to say the strategy has worked well although this latest research may allow me to broach the topic once again. From a March 17, 2017 Frontiers (publishing) news release on EurekAlert (Note: A link has been removed),

Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 789. Whether this pun makes you giggle or groan in pain, your reaction is a consequence of the ambiguity of the joke. Thus far, models have not been able to fully account for the complexity of humor or exactly why we find puns and jokes funny, but a research article recently published in Frontiers in Physics suggests a novel approach: quantum theory.

By the way, it took me forever to get the joke. I always blame these things on the fact that I learned French before English (although my English is now my strongest language). So, for anyone who may immediately grasp the pun: Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 78 (ate) 9.

This news release was posted by Anna Sigurdsson on March 22, 2017 on the Frontiers blog,

Aiming to answer the question of what kind of formal theory is needed to model the cognitive representation of a joke, researchers suggest that a quantum theory approach might be a contender. In their paper, they outline a quantum inspired model of humor, hoping that this new approach may succeed at a more nuanced modeling of the cognition of humor than previous attempts and lead to the development of a full-fledged, formal quantum theory model of humor. This initial model was tested in a study where participants rated the funniness of verbal puns, as well as the funniness of variants of these jokes (e.g. the punchline on its own, the set-up on its own). The results indicate that apart from the delivery of information, something else is happening on a cognitive level that makes the joke as a whole funny whereas its deconstructed components are not, and which makes a quantum approach appropriate to study this phenomenon.

For decades, researchers from a range of different fields have tried to explain the phenomenon of humor and what happens on a cognitive level in the moment when we “get the joke”. Even within the field of psychology, the topic of humor has been studied using many different approaches, and although the last two decades have seen an upswing of the application of quantum models to the study of psychological phenomena, this is the first time that a quantum theory approach has been suggested as a way to better understand the complexity of humor.

Previous computational models of humor have suggested that the funny element of a joke may be explained by a word’s ability to hold two different meanings (bisociation), and the existence of multiple, but incompatible, ways of interpreting a statement or situation (incongruity). During the build-up of the joke, we interpret the situation one way, and once the punch line comes, there is a shift in our understanding of the situation, which gives it a new meaning and creates the comical effect.

However, the authors argue that it is not the shift of meaning, but rather our ability to perceive both meanings simultaneously, that makes a pun funny. This is where a quantum approach might be able to account for the complexity of humor in a way that earlier models cannot. “Quantum formalisms are highly useful for describing cognitive states that entail this form of ambiguity,” says Dr. Liane Gabora from the University of British Columbia, corresponding author of the paper. “Funniness is not a pre-existing ‘element of reality’ that can be measured; it emerges from an interaction between the underlying nature of the joke, the cognitive state of the listener, and other social and environmental factors. This makes the quantum formalism an excellent candidate for modeling humor,” says Dr. Liane Gabora.

Although much work and testing remains before the completion of a formal quantum theory model of humor to explain the cognitive aspects of reacting to a pun, these first findings provide an exciting first step and opens for the possibility of a more nuanced modeling of humor. “The cognitive process of “getting” a joke is a difficult process to model, and we consider the work in this paper to be an early first step toward an eventually more comprehensive theory of humor that includes predictive models. We believe that the approach promises an exciting step toward a formal theory of humor, and that future research will build upon this modest beginning,” concludes Dr. Liane Gabora.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Toward a Quantum Theory of Humor by Liane Gabora and Kirsty Kitto. Front. Phys., 26 January 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fphy.2016.00053

This paper has been published in an open access journal. In viewing the acknowledgements at the end of the paper I found what I found to be a surprising funding agency,

This work was supported by a grant (62R06523) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We are grateful to Samantha Thomson who assisted with the development of the questionnaire and the collection of the data for the study reported here.

While I’m at this, I might as well mention that Kirsty Katto is from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia and, for those unfamiliar with the geography, the University of British Columbia is the the Canada’s province of British Columbia.

The comedy of science

Apparently there’s a movement afoot, a science comedy movement according to Alice Bell in her posting, A physicist, a chemist and a zoologist walk into a bar …,

Somewhere along the line, science got funny. PhD comics are pinned to noticeboards and Facebook has groups dedicated to those who spend too long in the lab. Or, at least, it found some funny friends. Robin Ince co-presents a humorous Radio 4 show with Brian Cox, Josie Long’s set includes gags about A-level maths and, as the Wellcome Trust blog points out, science had a noticeable presence at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

Bell has offered a thought-provoking essay looking at both the pros and the cons,

… Comedy can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, and that means it can hurt too.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 news journalist Samira Ahmed tweeted a request for some maths help.

Ben Goldacre, smelt bullshit and suggested his twitter followers “pre-mock” the story. They did. Then they realised it wasn’t quite as smelly as it seemed (nb: Goldacre speedily apologised). Reading Ahmed’s write up, it was worrying to hear that people “daren’t risk” speaking publicly. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the problem of “libel chill” on British science writing, that people self-censor for fear they’d be sued (as Simon Singh was by British Chiropractic Association). What about “mockery chill”?

I have to admit to having been quite thoughtless, on occasion, in my use of humour so I think Bell raises an important point.

Humour, as I noted  a few years ago in an entirely different context, can be dangerous. In addition to being hurtful, you can also disrupt the natural order of things. Think of political satirists and court jesters for that matter.

Bell’s essay inspired one by Dean Burnett guest post for The Lay Scientist (one of the Guardian Science Blogs),

But how does one go about introducing science into comedy, rather than the other way round? And what do non-London-based scientists do if they want some live comedy aimed at them? If they’re desperate enough to trawl the internet for hours, they can contact me. As a recently qualified doctor of neuroscience who’s also been a stand-up comedian for over five years, I’ve become something of a go-to guy for science conferences wanting a scientific comedy routine to round things off.

As someone experienced in both science and comedy but currently not employed by either, I’m always glad of the work. However, so rare is my background that I am often asked to make jokes about and poke fun at areas of science that I know little about, in front of people who are experts in it.

Preparing a routine about a field of study that isn’t your own is fraught with unique challenges. Case in point: I was recently asked to perform at a conference of geneticists, meaning I had to do a 15 minute set about genetics. Although my studies crossed into genetics quite frequently, I’ve always found it very confusing. So confusing, in fact, that the original request for me to do the conference confused me.

I had appeared at another conference several months before, and afterwards I was approached by a female professor who asked: “Do you have any genetics material?” This isn’t a typical post-gig question, so I wasn’t expecting it. I genuinely thought she asked, “Do you have any genetic material?” This alarmed me somewhat; I’m not at the level where I’ve been asked for my autograph yet, so for an unknown person to ask for a sample of my DNA for whatever reason was unprecedented. And terrifying.

This post has in turn inspired Pasco Phronesis (David Bruggemen) to find out if there are any science comedians in the US in his Sept. 26, 2010 posting,

As the Guardian notes, neuroscientist and stand-up comedian Dean Burnett gets work doing comedy sets for scientific conferences.

Now, if there is someone able to do the same thing in the U.S. or in other countries, I’d love to hear about it.

If anyone does know of a US science comedian, please do contact Pasco Phronesis (pasco dot phronesis at yahoo dot com).