[Paleopsych] NYT: Toonology: Scientists Try to Find Out What's So Funny About Humor

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Toonology: Scientists Try to Find Out What's So Funny About Humor
NYT September 28, 2004

So this group of scientists is setting out to study humor,
and they wire up their research subjects and - hang on. Is
this a New Yorker cartoon?

Absolutely. But now it is The New Yorker cartoon itself
that will become the object of scientific study. As in: How
do people perceive that specific things are funny? What
happens when they laugh? How does humor evolve? And just
why are people born with a gift for laughter and a sense
that the world is, er, mad?

These and many other not obviously risible mysteries will
be addressed by researchers at the University of Michigan
as they examine a vast, ready-made database of mirth:
virtually every cartoon published by the magazine since it
began on Feb. 1, 1925.

The three-year interdisciplinary experimental project is
called Humor at Michigan, in which wit will be studied from
psychological, medical, anthropological, cultural,
historical and other points of view.

"We need to know a whole lot more about humor," said the
project's organizer, Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the
Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the university. "We hope to
learn why we think things are funny, and whether it
matters. And if the joke is on us, that's fine."

Actually, the joke could be on everyone: the cartoon
database is available not only to researchers but, for the
first time, to the general public. It resides on two
compact discs included in "The Complete Cartoons of The New
Yorker," a 656-page book being published next Tuesday by
Black Dog & Leventhal ($60). The book will include 2,500
cartoons, but the discs hold all 68,647 cartoons published
up to the magazine's 79th anniversary last February.

"These cartoons nicely match the kinds of empirical methods
we can employ," said Dr. Richard L. Lewis, associate
professor of psychology and linguistics at the university.
He explains that cartoons-as-specimens are relatively
uniform; most consist of a single-panel black-and-white
illustration with a short-sentence caption.

"The fruit fly is used in decoding the mysteries of the
genome," said Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New
Yorker and editor of the new anthology, "because the
chromosomes are not complicated, and because its short life
cycle makes it ideal for following hereditary changes.
Well, the ideas in cartoons are like that: easily visible.
And the ideas that prompted them have an easily observable
life cycle."

Dr. Lewis is a cognitive psychologist who studies
psycholinguistics, the mental processes involved in
language comprehension. In previous studies he has tracked
research subjects' eyeball movements as they read texts at
a rate of 300 or 400 milliseconds per word.

Now this technique will confront the cartoon. "There is an
incredible amount of cognitive machinery involved in
understanding a cartoon, and one interesting thing about
humor is that you get it or you don't after two or three
seconds or so," Dr. Lewis said. During one planned
experiment, test viewers will eyeball cartoon images as
well as captions, "and every four milliseconds we'll get a
readout of where people are looking." Beyond an
understanding of comprehension itself, medical studies,
planned to begin next year, may explore the relation of
laughter to serotonin levels, or test for links to the
immune system.

Researchers will also be looking for physiological markers
that could be humor signatures. Dr. Lewis said there was
some evidence to suggest that eye-pupil dilation "might
correlate with the rating of cartoons for wit" (the larger
the pupil, the funnier the cartoon). Beyond this, "if we
can map certain processes of humor perception onto brain
regions," he said, "we could use functional magnetic
resonance imaging tests to depict blood flow in the brain
on a second-by-second basis, possibly revealing other
signature effects."

The investigators' working hypothesis "is that humor is
evolutionary, an adaptive response," said Dr. Richard
Gonzalez, chairman of the university's psychology
department. "But it could have developed as a function of
our brain size, or something else; we don't really know."

Although thinkers from Plato to Hobbes and Freud to
Wittgenstein have indulged in the grim sport of humor
hypothesis, "the kinds of theories we have about humor are
so rudimentary as to be pathetic," said Dr. Daniel Herwitz,
director of the university's Institute for the Humanities.
There is some consensus that humor is a complex phenomenon
subsuming external social context, interior emotional
response and the human capabilities of perception, memory
and judgment. "But these elements are part of most social
and linguistic transactions," he said, "and much of that
just isn't funny."

To Mr. Mankoff, who qualifies as something of an expert,
"the core of all humor, the reason for it all, is
unhappiness," he said, though he added that he spent a
mostly enjoyable year editing the cartoon database for the
new anthology. He describes his role in the research
project as "a stimulator and gadfly," explaining that the
academic collaboration started after he began lecturing at
the university in 2002. He will spend a year as a varsity
fellow during the research project.

Mr. Mankoff, 60, is a former Skinnerian Ph.D. candidate in
experimental psychology at Queens College in the 1970's.
("I quit when my experimental animal died," he said of a
pigeon with a number but not a name. "I took it as an omen
and became a cartoonist.") He began selling his work to The
New Yorker in 1977, became a contract cartoonist in 1981
and the editor in 1997.

Mr. Mankoff said it would be possible to study the
evolution of comic forms through cartoon elements.

For example, Dr. Gonzalez, the Michigan psychologist, said
the anthology could provide a window into sexual
stereotyping and how it had changed over time. Before
sexual harassment was seen as a serious offense, the
"geezer chasing maiden" cartoon was a staple. So were women
wielding rolling pins like baseball bats.

New Yorker cartoons are organized by decades in the book,
and the database can be used to track such comic evolutions
as the one that saw Father Time mutate in the late 1960's
into the Grim Reaper - who, in turn, evolved from a menacer
in a land of pestilence into a scold in a consumerist
paradise. ("Relax," says the modern Reaper to a worried
woman, "I've come for your toaster.")

But Mr. Mankoff says it is possible to organize cartoons
not just chronologically but taxonomically, in relation to
four vectors: caption, image and two values he terms "real"
and "unreal."

"Most gags consist of an unreal image with a rather
ordinary caption," he said, citing a cartoon that shows a
party guest speaking to a desperate woman on a window
ledge, referring to a man on the same ledge around the
corner. The guest says, cheerfully, "There's someone I'd
like you to meet." Or, Mr. Mankoff went on, they might
couple a commonplace image (married couple) with an
outlandish caption ("I'm sorry, dear. I wasn't listening.
Could you repeat what you've said since we've been

His two other categories are "surreal" and "slice of life."
The first applies when both caption and image are unusual
(crocodiles talking about eating their young); slice of
life applies when neither caption nor image is unusual,
just funny.

The Michigan levity project is to get $100,000 in financing
from the university's Institute for the Humanities, the
psychology department, the Depression Center of the medical
school and the university's Rackham Graduate School. After
that money runs out, it may have to turn to outside
sources. Dr. Gonzalez was asked if he thought the project
would be taken seriously. "I hope that we could do work
that would not be easy to mock," he replied.

And Mr. Eisendrath noted that "depression is a major health
problem in the United States," adding, "So anyone who
questions the value of a study of humor literally needs his
head examined."

There is always, of course, the Heisenbergian concern that
the more humor is studied, the more elusive it will become,
or as Dr. Herwitz put it: "Humor is like Groucho Marx. It
refuses to join any club that would have it as a member."

Mr. Mankoff preferred to paraphrase E. B. White, who said
dissecting humor was like dissecting a frog: nobody is much
interested, and the frog dies.

"I come here not to bury the cartoon," Mr. Mankoff said of
the project, "but to praise it."


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