A few weeks ago, I got an email wondering why people sometimes “break into uncontrollable laughter or smiling when faced with terrible situations, like death or illness.” Where does this perverse emotional reaction come from? Why do we smile at the most inappropriate times?
I looked into the peer-reviewed literature and didn’t find much. While there have been some interesting fMRI studies of our comedic circuits, I don’t think that references to the left posterior temporal gyrus explain very much.* Our anatomy is always interesting, but localizing the laughter reflex won’t tell us why we laugh instead of cry, or why there are so many smiles at funerals.
Freud, of course, had an eloquent speculation on this paradox. In his 1928 investigation into humor, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Freud argued that laughter was a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with the unspeakable pain of everyday life. He gives the example of a prisoner about to locked in the gallows, who says to his guard: “Well, this is a good beginning to the week”. The prisoner makes a joke because he doesn’t want to cry; his ego distracts his conscious brain from the unspeakable misery of the moment.
I’ve always been intrigued by Henri Bergson’s theory of humor. (For one thing, it explains why Judd Apatow is making the same basic jokes as Aristophanes. Shit and puke and farts will always be comedic gold.) Bergson defined comedy as what happens when the mechanical is foisted upon the living, when man is momentarily machine-like (think of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, or all the physical comedy in The Hangover). We laugh out of relief that our rigid state is only temporary – tragedy is when it’s permanent – and that, after the man acts like a repetitive robot, or is betrayed by his automated body, our innate elan vital asserts itself. Life eludes the “mechanical inelasticity” of matter. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be alive. Consider the man slipping on a banana peel. The scene is funny because for just a moment the man acts like a thing, plummeting to the floor with a thud.
What does this have to do with paradoxical laughter? What can Freud and Bergson and the temporal gyrus tell us about those irrepressible smiles in the face of pain? I don’t know. The point, I guess, is that laughter isn’t just about comedy. Behind every joke is a temporary tragedy, a man slipping and falling on a peel he should have seen. We see ourselves as a material thing – a piece of awkward matter, with intestines and gravitational mass – which reminds us that we’re hopelessly mortal. Life is short. Why not laugh?
* The most revealing thing about this neural anatomy is that it seems to overlap with the neural correlates of aha moments. This supports Arthur Koestler’s idea that “getting the joke” and “solving the problem” are really the same basic mental process. A punchline is a eureka moment in miniature.