Small Demon
Mar 192009
 

I’m not big on biological reductionism when it comes to the arts, especially when the evolutionary biologists start talking about the “evolutionary value” of this or that cultural practice, making up their little just-so stories. But I was intrigued the other day by this article describing the way the brain processes jokes. It occurred to me long ago that a lyric poem and a joke share certain structural similarities — ones Michael Theune could no doubt elucidate in detail — but in simplest form, the punchline, the payoff, the turn or the pivot that surprises. So here we have the human brain, which loves pattern and repetition, music:

This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life’s offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. “The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”

But the joke, which the brain also likes, depends on variation and timing and detail:

Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

In poetry, then, one is forcing the brain to operate on more than one level. In an older paradigm — that of the left and right hemispheres of the brain — it was possible to imagine something similar going on: the left hemisphere’s interest in and control over meter and pattern combining with the right hemisphere’s interest in novel arrangements. The physiology is of course much more complicated that the metaphor, but the metaphor is still suggestive. Poetry integrates different kinds of cognition, even kinds that might seem to be in conflict with each other.

A good joke or a good poem has a ground of pattern against which a specific path is picked out and that path has turns and surprises concealed in it, sometimes using the camouflage of pattern to conceal itself until the right moment. Question: What does the surprise — the punchline — yield in terms of knowledge? Insight? Understanding? Can a punchline or a surprise be empty?

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Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.