The Echoes of the Mind (58-1) Humor


Humor is reason gone mad. ~ American comedian Groucho Marx

Humor is a specific creativity: a mental form of play that diverts the expected toward absurdity. The surprise of incongruity in frames of reference is the essential element of humor.

I have a large seashell collection, which I keep scattered on beaches all over the world. ~ American comedian Stephen Wright

The capacity for humor is innate. Healthy babies are naturally bubbly and playful. Infants begin to laugh in response to the actions of others at 4 months. Laughter is among the earliest social vocalizations.

Young children like slapstick for its accessibility. Maturity and knowledge bring a greater appreciation of subtlety and sophistication in wit, where social norms and mores may be satirically skewered.

Other animals possess senses of humor. All apes laugh, as do dogs. Rats chirp as they play in a way that resembles giggles. Kookaburras laugh. Crows are known for their mischievousness, often at their target’s expense. We do not know how far humor extends as being characteristic of enjoying life, but cells may chuckle in their own way.


The term humor today has a generally positive social cast. But this connotation is recent.

The etymology of humor traces to the ancient Latin for fluid (humorem). The ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen conceptualized temperaments and psychological states as being brought about by a balance of fluids (humors). From this came the medieval use of humor to mean mood; such as being in “ill humor.” Until the 16th century there was no association of humor with fun or laughter.

During the 16th century the association of humor with an unbalanced personality led the English to use the term for an odd or eccentric person. Because such people were often objects of ridicule and laughter, the term humor edged into the field of comedy.

By the 18th century a peculiar character who was the object of laughter became known as a humorist. Someone who took pleasure in imitating the peculiarities of a humorist was a “man of humor.” Humor came to be seen as the talent to make others laugh.

The term humorist as synonymous with comedian did not become common until the late 19th century. Mark Twain was one of the first humorists in the modern sense.

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. ~ Mark Twain

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Popular conceptions of laughter and the laughable followed the evolution of the term humor. Most references to laughter in the Bible were linked with mockery, derision, and contempt.

The philosophic conceptualization of laughter as a form of aggression can be traced to Aristotle, who believed it was the standard response to an ugly or deformed person if the overwhelming impression was not of anger or pity. Thomas Hobbes adhered to the Aristotelian tradition in thinking laughter was based upon a feeling of superiority; not that he sanctioned it.

Much laughter at the defects of others is a sign of pusillanimity. ~ Thomas Hobbes in 1651

A proliferation of English terms for laughter sprouted in the latter part of the 17th century. Terminology settled somewhat in the early 18th century, with the word ridicule used as a generic term for anything that incites laughter. (ridicule: from the Latin ridiculum = joke and ridiculus = laughable.) The aggressiveness of the term ridicule remains in full flower today.

Whereas laughter was a passive response, ridicule was an active attack. Throughout 18th-century Europe ridicule was a popular debating technique for humiliating one’s adversaries by rendering them objects of laughter (ad hominem).

Related terms at the time were raillery and banter. While both referred to aggressive witty repartee, banter was viewed as a coarser, lower-class form of ridicule. Raillery was more refined, and so more socially acceptable.

With the growing view of ridicule as a respectable art form, the idea of laughter as an expression of scorn evolved into it being viewed as a response to cleverness. In the mid-18th century Hobbes’ superiority theory was supplanted by the idea that laughter sprang from incongruity.

The cause of laughter is the bringing together of images which have contrary additional ideas, as well as some resemblance in the principal idea. ~ Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson in 1750

A more civil sensibility was blossoming in the British middle class, as exemplified by Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1859). Social reformers argued for a more humanitarian take on laughter, based upon empathy rather than aggression.

This paradigm shift required a new term. Humor was co-opted for the benevolent interpretation of laughter. Meanwhile, the word wit began to be used for the aggressive laughter-evoking remarks for which ridicule had been used. (wit: from the Old English witan = to know.)

By the early 19th century ridicule had been replaced by the contrasting words wit and humor in reference to laughter. Over the course of the 20th century, humor took the crown for provoking laughter away from wit, which was relegated to a cleverly apt expression via keen perception.


Humor and laughter are a universal aspect of human experience, occurring in all cultures and virtually all individuals throughout the world. ~ Canadian psychologist Rod Martin

Though universal, humor’s appreciation is personal: dependent upon maturity, intelligence, context, and culture.

The sound of laughter is unmistakably distinctive. Though different cultures have their own norms of what subject matter is suitable for humor, laughter is universal.

Humor is most often expressed as a social interaction, but its roots lie in ecological psychology: the conceptual bending of actuality in a way that manufactures mirth.

Solemnity is the shield of idiots. ~ French lawyer and political philosopher Montesquieu

 What’s Funny?

A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. 3 years later, there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: “What the hell was that all about?”

Mentalizing involves understanding others’ unspoken intentions. Typical adult conversations sharing facts involve 3 levels of intentionality.

Mind perception is mentally taxing. An adult can comprehend up to 5 levels of intentionality before losing the plot of an intricate story.

The funniest jokes are those involving 2 characters, and at most 5 back-and-forth levels of mind perceptions between a comedian and his audience. The best jokes build on expectations, with a punchline that updates the knowledge of the listener in an unexpected way.

Expectations that entail the minds of people other than the joke-teller or the audience – such as the characters in the joke – are difficult to comprehend, as too many mind states are embroiled. Clever complexity is not funny.

A guy shows up late for work. The boss yells: “You should’ve been here at 8:30!” He replies: “Why? What happened at 8:30?”


Humor’s momentary release from the mundane is incandescently transcendent: a brief exercise of energetic bliss blended into a context. Spiritually, in helping to see the artifice of existence, humor is a proverbial breadcrumb on the path to enlightenment.

The highest state is laughter. ~ Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who laughed a lot (so much that he was called “the giggling guru”)