“Sir, which is the wettest element?”
“Because it’s under C.”
Don’t believe the joker? Click here for your periodic table of elements.
If there is one complaint I have of my current batch, it is this — some of them can be unbearably corny. Check out these blogs: 1, 2, 3, 4. They like to crack lame puns out of anything and everything you say, and it’s not even funny. Yet people laugh either because of their attempt to be funny, or because they can’t bear getting angry or pissed off. And the sad thing is, this corniness is infectious.
However, I’ve never told them that the ability to crack a joke is a sign of intelligence, and there’s no kidding that the students in Pisay are the smartest of the lot. While humor is primarily a social function — different people will find different things funny depending on their context — joking is an intellectual activity. A good joke establishes connections between ideas and knowledge, and our brain shuffles through what we know of language, syntax and social norms until all the links are made and the joke is sold. Quoting Dan Ferber from his article, “The Funny Factor” over at Reader’s Digest, what happens after the link are made is this,
In a flash, we mentally shift gears and see the story in a new light. We delight in the surprising logic, especially if it reveals a rarely spoken truth about human nature. Then we laugh. We do all that in a fraction of a second — no mean feat, even by the high standards of the human brain.
This explains “brain drain” or in this context, the apparent dip in intelligence a lot of people experience after a good laugh. It’s really an intellectual activity that requires a lot of neurons firing between the two sides of our brain. From Ferber’s article once more,
Here’s how scientists think it works: When you hear a joke, a language center on the left side of your brain makes sense of the words, then sends the message across to the right side of the brain. There, the right frontal cortex delves into regions including those that store emotions and social memories, then shuffles the information until it clicks and you get the joke. Next, a structure deep in the brain pumps out dopamine, a “reward system” chemical that makes you feel good, and a primitive region near the base of your skull makes you laugh.
Furthermore, they add that humor can help sharpen our intuition. I was actually astounded to read this since I do enjoy a good laugh or two, and rely heavily on my intuition.
At Caltech, Allman and Watson discovered an important new humor muscle by scanning Allman’s brain, as well as those of 19 other people. Inside the scanner, each subject viewed 47 Far Side cartoons and 53 New Yorker cartoons, while pushing buttons on a handheld device to rate how funny each was. The results suggested for the first time how humor might change our brain to sharpen our intuition. Allman and Watson had already focused on two parts of the frontal lobe that work when we react intuitively. The results of the experiment, which were published in March in the journal Cerebral Cortex, showed that the funnier the subjects rated the cartoon, the harder those two brain parts worked.
But the same two regions also activate when we experience complex emotions, such as love, lust and guilt. Since both intuition and emotions come into play when we make social decisions, Allman suspects that the two new humor muscles play a role in the fast, intuitive (and sometimes wrong) judgments we routinely make about others.
Allman believes that complex humor may actually recalibrate our intuition, allowing us to make better social decisions. “I think we’ve hit upon the mechanism of that,” he says. If so, then lightening up could keep our hunches on target.
Amazing. Cracking jokes heightens our awareness of connections between ideas and people. This is not a completely alien idea. Philosophers of old have taught through riddles and parables. And Zen philosophers, above all, are known for using these riddles to break the limits of the human mind. Take these two examples.
THE MASTER Ikkyu showed his wisdom even as a child. Once he broke the precious heirloom teacup of his teacher, and was greatly upset. While he was wondering what to do, he heard his teacher coming. Quickly he hid the pieces of the cup under his robe.
“Master,” he said, “why do things die?”
“It is perfectly natural for things to die and for the matter gathered in them to separate and disintegrate,” said the teacher. “When its time has come every person and every thing must go.
“Master,” said little Ikkyu, showing the pieces, “it was time for your cup to go.”
THE MASTER Nan-in had a visitor who came to inquire about Zen. But instead of listening, the visitor kept talking about his own ideas.
After a while, Nan-in served tea. He poured tea into his visitor’s cup until it was full, then he kept on pouring.
Finally the visitor could not restrain himself. “Don’t you see it’s full?” he said. “You can’t get any more in!”
“Just so,” replied Nan-in, stopping at last. “And like this cup, you are filled with your own ideas. How can you expect me to give you Zen unless you offer me an empty cup?”
In a sense, this is why I love to joke around in my classes. I am sure some feel that all the laughter gets in the way, but even more have told me that they laugh and laugh, and don’t realize how much they’re learning already.
Personally, I’ve always felt that laughter keeps our mind alert and everything we say memorable. A former student even remarked that the jokes helped him review for my tests. He would laugh while reading his notes, remembering all the gags we pulled off.
Laughter also keeps us nimbly creative and alert. I can clearly see how my classes are so disengaged when I deliver a straightforward lecture, and how I have them in the palm of my hand when I start delivering a skit or long joke.
It turns out I’m right. Psychologists agree that laughter improves memory. And that Ron Berk, PhD,
has put such knowledge to work in the classroom, using jokes, funny examples, sight gags and skits. He has published a series of studies showing that sharing a laugh helps students learn more. Even funny test directions helped students do significantly better on an otherwise identical exam.
Indeed. I should start working on making a “funny exam” then.
On most days, I’ve resolved not to take life too seriously. I realized that it is during those times when I work best and am most contented with everything in my life. Laughter is truly the lighter side of life, and in a lot of sense, the better side. Another article opines that optimism is a health benefit, and a longer one talks about how laughter is not only a good medicine, but a preventive cure.
Some students have been telling me that I laugh less lately. Heh. Perhaps, I’m just waiting for a really funny joke; they’re good and I want them to be better. These guys are the best of the best, and thus the corniest of the corniest. But honestly now, there are really no complaints. Corny or not, they never cease to make my day.