What Comedy Can Teach Us About Critical Thinking

July 11th, 2015 1 Comment Features

humor and learning

What do you call two crows on a branch? Attempted murder. What’s another name for Santa’s elves? Subordinate clauses. What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question? . . .

There’s a reason jokes entertain us, and it has more to do with intelligence than we think.

Erik Meira, who blogs about science and humour on his website, The PT Podcast, says crafting a good joke is as serious an exercise in critical thinking as anything else.

The reason is this: When comics recognise something as funny, they actually explore why it’s is funny. “Any comic will tell you that comedy is a skill that you need to practise intentionally on a regular basis,” Meria writes. “It’s not simply ‘being funny’; that is just a prerequisite. Most comics spend their days working on joke development–it is a full time job.”

The process usually looks something like this. First, a comic will make an observation about the world around them, something that reflects the mundane occurrences of life. Then they will examine one of those observations and think about the ways that most people intuitively interpret that observation (the more universal the better). Finally, Meira says, the comic must look for alternative interpretations that no one else has considered but are just as true, if not more so.

Good humour requires far more creativity than most of us realise.

“This is known as the turn or the twist of the joke and is what actually makes it funny. The more the alternative interpretation is unintuitive yet true, the funnier it is. That is why a very common reaction to a really good joke is, ‘Oh my God! That is SO true!'”

Incongruity theory suggests that humour arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies are already anticipating what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion and is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, this incongruity between the different parts of the joke as humorous.

Take this prose poem by Russell Edson, for example, which pokes fun at Descartes’ famous philosophical proposition, “I think, therefore I am”:

“I think, therefore I am, said a man whose mother quickly
hit him on the head, saying, I hit my son on the head,
therefore I am.
No no, you’ve got it all wrong, cried the man.
So she hit him on the head again and cried, therefore I am.
You’re not, not that way; you’re supposed to think, not hit,
cried the man.

. . . I think, therefore I am, said the man.
I hit, therefore we both are, the hitter and the one who gets
hit, said the man’s mother.
But at this point the man had ceased to be; unconscious, he
could not think. But his mother could. So she thought, I am,
and so is my unconscious son, even if he doesn’t know it . . .”

The point is, good humour requires far more creativity than most of us realise.

“Over the years I have learned to use sense of humour as a litmus test for critical thinking,” Meira admits. “When I meet someone who takes everything very seriously and lacks any kind of sense of humour, I know they suck at critical thinking.”

As it turns out, scientists, who are charged with thinking critically all the time, make some of the best comics.

With a quick search, you’ll find that many of today’s best comedy writers received degrees in pretty heavy fields. David X. Cohen, longtime “Simpsons” writer and creator of “Futurama,” graduated from Harvard University with a degree in physics and went on to U.C. Berkeley, where he was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in computer science. Rowan Atkinson, star of the “Mr. Bean” series, earned his Master’s degree in electrical engineering from The University of Oxford. Mike Judge, the man behind “King of the Hill” and “Office Space” graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in physics and worked in engineering before shifting his focus to comedy. ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic got a degree in architecture from California Polytechnic University. The list goes on.

“When I attend conferences, my favorite people to hang around are skeptical researchers,” Meira says. “Now, I know what you’re thinking…researchers are funny? Yes, because a good scientist sees the world in the same way as a comic.”

And the best part is, research shows that it works both ways: humour can help people be more creative in problem solving and higher order thinking.

Joking Your Way to Genius

While conducting graduate research at Northwestern University, neuroscientist Karuna Subramaniam found that boosting the mood of volunteers increased their likelihood of having an aha! moment as measured by their ability to solve a word association puzzle, the standard test for creative problem solving. Those who watched a comedy were measurably better at the task using insight than those who watched a horror film, or worse yet, a lecture about quantum electronics.

Using functional MRI, Subramaniam discovered that creative insight is correlated with increased activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) just prior to solving a problem. This region is involved in regulating attention and in problem solving. And people in a positive mood generally have more ACC activity going into the task, which probably helped prepare the brain to find novel solutions. Participants who watched scary movies, such as The Shining, which was specifically noted in the research as “anxiety-producing,” resulted in less activity in the ACC and demonstrated less creativity in solving the puzzles.

In other words, laughter can help people solve problems that demand creative solutions by making it easier to think more broadly and associate ideas more freely.

Humour, lightened mood, and mental spaciousness are important when it comes to encouraging creativity, ideation, and problem solving

In another study, 84 students, professional designers, and improvisational comedians took a cartoon caption humour test and a nominal product brainstorming test. The improvisational comedians generated 20 percent more ideas than professional product designers did, and the comedians generated ideas that were also rated 25 percent more creative. The study also found that many of the games used in improvisational comedy training could be effectively adapted to product design idea generation, because they strongly promoted associative thinking, and found that it increased idea output on average by 37 percent in a subsequent product brainstorming session.

This means that humour, lightened mood, and mental spaciousness are important when it comes to encouraging creativity, ideation, and problem solving. But it also means that it pays off to understand– not just create–humour.

“Among comics there is the derogatory term ‘hack,'” Meira explains. “A comic can be generally called a ‘hack’ or a specific joke can be considered ‘hacky.’ This is when you lazily take an alternative yet obvious interpretation–in other words, the obvious and easy joke. Your classic ‘fart joke,’ if you will.” Meira says these jokes only work on “unsophisticated” audiences. More “sophisticated” audiences, he says, can see the joke coming from far away.

“When presented with a scenario, the average mind will go first to the intuitive and obvious. At best, it will think of the hack alternative explanation. A good critical thinker won’t be satisfied with the obvious or the hack explanation. They will explore all the possible explanations looking for the ‘real’ truth, the more hidden the better–exactly the way a comic sees the world. This is where large leaps occur in knowledge. Find that ‘deep cut’ of underlying and hidden truth that no one else has considered and then test it.”

Topographical brain mapping has shown that the entire brain has to work together to appreciate a joke fully and for humour to work. First, the left hemisphere begins to process the words, then the frontal lobe center of emotionality is activated, 120 milliseconds later the right hemisphere begins processing the pattern and a few milliseconds later the occipital lobe shows increased activity. Delta waves are increased as the brain “gets” the joke, and the nucleus accumbens to elicit happiness felt as a reward, and finally, laughter erupts.

“This is quite different from what happens with your typical emotional responses,” says Moses Ma, partner at NextGEN ventures and consulting, a strategic consulting firm that also runs a boutique high tech venture accelerator in San Francisco. “Emotional responses appear to be confined to specific areas of the brain, while laughter seems to be produced via a circuit that runs through many regions of the brain.”

There is now an entire branch of science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humour and laughter on the brain and immune system. It’s called gelotology and studies in this area are burgeoning. Researchers are beginning to pinpoint the specific benefits of laughter and humour, including enhanced learning and perceptual flexibility–a required component of creativity.

Using Comedy to Enhance Learning

Researchers have been studying the effects of humour on formal education for over forty years. One study at Sam Houston State University, led by psychologist Randy Garner, PhD, found that students were more likely to recall a statistics lecture when it was interjected with jokes about relevant topics. For example, in a lecture segment on reporting research findings, Garner used a metaphorical joke about a planned escape by one of two prisoners in a desert jail.

One prisoner tries to escape after unsuccessfully persuading the other to go with him, only learning–after breaking out–that escape is futile as there is nothing but sand for hundreds of miles. After he’s captured and returned to his cell, he tells the story of failed escape to the other prisoner who subsequently shares that he tried to escape a few years earlier. Incredulous, the first prisoner exclaimed, “You knew! Why didn’t you tell me?” whereupon the other remarks, “Silly man, you should know that no one reports negative results.”

Garner explains: “Well-planned, appropriate, contextual humor can help students ingrain information.”

Humour can also pique students’ interest outside a formal learning setting. In a 2005 article published in Teaching of Psychology, Ohio University-Zanesville psychology professors Mark Shatz, PhD, and Frank LoSchiavo, PhD, found that when a professor inserted self-deprecating jokes, psychology-related cartoons, and top 10 lists in an online introductory psychology course, their students more often logged on to the online system Blackboard and were more likely to enjoy the course.

Garner explains: “Well-planned, appropriate, contextual humor can help students ingrain information.”

“Professors’ jobs are to educate, not to entertain,” says Shatz. “But if humour can make the learning process more enjoyable, then I think everybody benefits as a result.”

Organisations are starting to incorporate comedy into their training programmes, too. Improv Asylum, a Boston-based group that recently set up in Ireland, uses improv to make workplace education both more engaging and more instructive.

“Our slogan is that we teach your head to think on its feet. Our training is about more than just having fun and it’s most definitely not about teaching people how to be funny. The main focus is on how to be good at listening and responding more effectively so that you can be more innovative,” Improv Asylum co-founder Chet Harding told the Irish Times. “On stage, we try to make someone else’s idea better by working together. As comedians we have to be innovative and respond quickly, and the skillset used in this type of comedy is transferable to the corporate world,” says Harding.

In the U.S., this type of training is now regularly being used to coach people in soft skills such as better communication and leadership.

“These abilities happen to be the fundamental skills of improvisation and many companies are gravitating towards improv training because it offers a hands-on ‘active learning’ experience that cultivates these capabilities,” said Daena Giardella, an actress and voiceover artist who teaches an improvisational leadership class at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

There are undoubtedly great cognitive gains associated with programmes like these, and future research will be able to tell us more about how to implement them most effectively. For now, let’s embrace Meira’s advice and lighten our hearts in order to strengthen our minds.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

One Response

  1. Gaeta says:

    Creative read about comedy!

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