Friday, 25 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #148. Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? (3 of 7)

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999.


CHAPTER 3: The Mind/Body Axis. (Is laughter created by an involuntary body or a voluntary mind?).

(Note: This dissertation has been posted in seven instalments)

List of contents

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is laughter?
  • What is comedy?
  • What is humour?
  • Aesthetic judgments
  • Simple Objectivism (Recognizing the rules of composition).
  • Simple Subjectivism (I know what I like but do I need to know why?).
  • Simple Relativism (Is one judgment as good or as bad as another?).
  • Sophisticated Objectivism (All in the imagination?).
  • Sophisticated Subjectivism (Colours and aesthetics - 'seeing red'?).
  • Pragmatic Relativism ('Local' truths).

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is the superiority theory of laughter?
  • What is the incongruity theory of laughter?
  • What is the psychic release theory of laughter?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Where in the body is the impulse to laugh located?
  • Is there a 'laughter centre' in the human brain?
  • Is laughter voluntary or involuntary?
  • What philosophical models exist to explain the mind/body axis?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) - A case study.
  • Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes, 1996) - A comparative case study.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is determinism?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *



*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

CHAPTER 3: The Mind/Body Axis. (Is laughter created by an involuntary body or a voluntary mind?).

Whether laughter is voluntary or involuntary has important implications from a moral standpoint regarding the debate over free will versus determinism. If we are, in some way, biologically programmed to laugh and to laugh at particular things (particular types of stimulus which manifest themselves as comic texts) then do we have any choice in the matter? If laughter is, in some way, deterministic (determined by our evolution and heredity) then do we have any real powers of volition and moral responsibility when we laugh?

An important consideration in trying to resolve this debate is whether human consciousness resides in an involuntary body or a voluntary mind or some compromise between the two. Various attempts to describe the phenomenon of laughter encounter this problem of the mind/body axis which forms the basis of this chapter.

Where in the body is the impulse to laugh located?

The sixteenth-century French physician Laurent Joubert (1980) wrote extensively on this subject in his Treatise on Human Laughter. He located the source of laughter in the human heart with the common-sensical (to Renaissance minds) observation that '... one commonly says 'he laughs heartily' and not 'brainily' (Joubert, 1980, p.xiii). Following Platonic philosophy, he saw the heart as the seat of emotions. The source of laughter's convulsions, according to Joubert, was to be found in the contradiction of emotions (such as joy and sorrow). In his scheme of human physiology, these contradictory emotions caused the heart to dilate and contract, transferring this movement to the diaphragm and expelling air from the lungs in convulsions.

While, in the light of subsequent medical discoveries, Joubert's theories may seem quaint or ridiculous to modern students of physiology, they actually exemplify our post-modern inability to view laughter as arising from a single or simple emotion (Aristotle's 'pleasure of the ridiculous').

Joubert's theories thus present us with a twin dilemma: they confirm our earlier suspicion that theories on laughter may inform us more about the contemporaneous beliefs of a society than about the phenomenon under discussion; however, they also seem to foreshadow a modern ambivalence in that the emotional nature of laughter is difficult to seize. We cite Joubert as an interesting interim case study, poised between the comparative moral simplicities of Aristotelian catharsis and the moral complexities of our own post-modernist era.

How do Joubert's theories compare with more modern and sophisticated physiological explanations? Already it is becoming increasingly untenable to discuss laughter in purely physiological terms without including the psychological dynamic and the mind/body axis.

Is there a 'laughter centre' in the human brain?

There is still no medical consensus as to whether there is a 'laughter centre' in the human brain although some attempts have been made to locate it in the thalamus (cf. Calder, 1970). There have been deductions made after testing brain-damaged patients which indicate that cognitive defects in the right hemisphere of the brain limit a person's 'humour competence' (the ability to choose 'correct' punchlines to simple jokes) in specific ways (cf. Brownell & Gardner, 1988).

Recent research by neuroscientists in Toronto (cf. Highfield, 1999) suggests that people with right frontal lobe damage, while sensitive to the surprise element of 'slapstick' humour (for example, our earlier unintentional instance of seeing somebody accidentally slip on a banana skin) are unable to proceed to more sophisticated levels of wit (sophisticated models of our earlier proposition of comic texts). The reason for this is that the right frontal lobe plays a critical role in higher cognitive functions such as emotions and personality.

However, we should be wary of visualising the brain as a mechanical device with either functional or impaired parts determining our personality and sense of humour. Our analogy should (literally) be more fluid, taking into account the role played by chemical neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin (a lack of which can cause depression) and the production, during laughter, of endorphins (which create a pain-killing and pleasurable effect) (cf. Holden, 1993).

It is tempting, at this point, to update Aristotle's 'pleasure of the ridiculous' to a chemically-induced catharsis rather than a spiritual one. However, we should also be wary of revisualising the brain as some kind of chemical soul or the modern equivalent of the medieval 'cardinal humours'.

This problem of proposing a coherent model or analogy for the human mind is one to which we shall return after briefly examining the neurophysiological theories of laughter and volition.

Is laughter voluntary or involuntary?

Jonathan Miller (1988) compares laughter with other bodily exhalations such as sneezing and coughing in that they are involuntary actions. He then goes on to note that, in some ways, they also belong to the province of the will in that they can be voluntarily suppressed.

This almost seems to be an inversion of Freud's theory of psychic release. While Freud saw laughter as the release of psychic energy no longer needed to repress a bypassed censurable thought, Miller sees laughter as an autonomous impulse which is capable of being repressed by higher cognate functions. Miller differentiates between involuntary actions like sneezing and coughing (which have no unconscious intent) and the impulse to laugh (which may have unconscious intent) as the stimulus to laugh is what he terms a 'top-down' concept, coming from higher cognitive levels of the nervous system while other involuntary actions 'attack the nervous system from the bottom up.' (Miller, 1988, p.8).

It is interesting to ponder Miller's terminology here with words like 'attack'. As identified in the introduction, historically there seems to have been a tendency among physicians to regard laughter as a benign physiological dysfunction with beneficial side-effects. Although Miller seems to conclude that laughter is an involuntary action capable of suppression by our higher cognitive functions, there seems to be a general propensity among our cited commentators to discuss laughter in physical terms as involving some loss of control. This propensity also seems to exist in common parlance with phrases such as 'fits of laughter' and 'uncontrollable laughter' (even to the extent of imagined loss of bladder control in 'pissing yourself with laughter').

There is also the apparent phenomenon of 'infectious laughter' as in a case study cited by Stearns (1972) in which over a thousand female adolescents were afflicted by a 'laughing syndrome' in Tanganyika between 1962 and 1964 without any apparent pathophysiological cause. Although no conclusive explanation was established, Stearns tentatively speculates that cultural repression of ethnic traditional identity followed by some form of mass hysterical psychic release may have been responsible. (Stearns, 1972, p.40).

While Miller regards the impulse to laugh as involuntary in origin but capable of voluntary suppression, Stearns makes the point that '"Voluntary" is a psychological concept and has no certain analogy in the function of the central nervous system.' (Stearns, 1972, p.9). Thus we still do not have any satisfactory model of laughter and the mind/body axis in neurophysiological terms. Perhaps a philosophical analysis may yield better results?

What philosophical models exist to explain the mind/body axis?

The main problem described by the mind/body axis is the common sensation that, as human beings, in some ways we are our bodies and, in other ways, we are something more than our bodies. It is this sensation (rather than laughter per se) which may differentiate human beings from other animals.The real problem is not whether Aristotle was correct in believing that human beings are the only creatures that laugh. It is whether laughter is synonymous with a creature's self-awareness beyond its bodily instincts.

As Peter Berger (1997) asserts:

'An animal is its body, which it has in common with man, but man also has his body as something from which he can subjectively distance himself and that he can consciously make use of for this or that purpose.'(Berger, 1997, pp 46-47).

It is not clear though what form this self-awareness takes and how it relates to the physical anatomy. Just as we pondered whether there was a 'laughter centre' in the human brain, is there a 'soul centre' as well?

The seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes attempted to explain the mind/body axis in terms of Cartesian Dualism (cf. Cottingham, Stoothoff & Murdoch, 1985). He proposed that minds are purely non-physical although they interact causally with the physical body.

However, the twentieth-century philosopher William Lycan (1996) summarises some modern objections to Cartesian Dualism arising from the growth of logical positivism preferring a third-person perspective and verification requirements to first-person intuitions (cf. Simon, 1985).

In essence, Lycan summarises three objections:

  1. an immaterial mind is inconsistent with neurophysiological explanations of bodily behaviour as regulated by the brain;
  2. an immaterial mind is inconsistent with Darwin's Theory of  Evolution as human beings evolved from primitive one-celled creatures without minds; it is not clear how minds could evolve if they have no physical substance;
  3. an immaterial mind is inconsistent with the known laws of physics; if it has no spatial existence then there is no demonstrable mechanism which would enable it to interact causally with spatial objects.

Various alternatives to Cartesian Dualism have been proposed. Behaviourism took the methodological approach that inner-states, either neurophysiological or mental, were not psychological but biological phenomena involving characteristic behavioural responses. However, Lycan objects to this approach as human beings are aware of experiencing mental states without there being any accompanying characteristic behaviour. Also, it seems possible for people to differ psychologically while having similar neurophysiologies (cf. Lycan, 1996).

A proposed solution to these objections was the identity theory which held that mental states are identical with neurophysiological states or events. However, machine-functionalists (those who advocate the function or role of a neurophysiology over its configuration in any particular species) objected to the identity theory as being guilty of 'species chauvinism' (Lycan 1996, p.172). The functionalist model of the mind compared mental states to the logical states of a computer programme. Again this seems to demonstrate that theories of laughter may well tell us more about the pre-occupations of a society with itself than about the actual phenomenon under discussion.

However, the machine-functionalist model raises several intriguing possibilities. As well as pondering whether a computer could achieve consciousness (artificial intelligence) similar to that of a human being's natural intelligence, would it also be able to achieve a sense of humour as well (and which of our earlier theories of laughter might it be based on?). Such a prospect raises the symbiotic possibility that an artificial intelligence's sense of humour may be able to provide a definitive explanation of human humour. Alternatively, if human laughter is so irretrievably located in human being's particular neurophysiologies, objections of 'species chauvinism' may become irrelevant and we will be left none the wiser.

Unfortunately, the more pessimistic proposition looks likely. The American philosopher John Searle (cited in Rogers, 1999) opposes behaviourist and artificial intelligence models of the mind because he believes that such proponents 'find themselves in the absurd position of denying the existence of what it is they set out to explain: consciousness.' (Rogers, 1999, p.14). We have to concede that, if we do not have a sound theory of consciousness, we do not have any valid theory of humour.

Searle (1996) rejects attempts to remodel Cartesian Dualism in favour of accepting consciousness as just another related phenomenon of our biology along with respiration. In essence, Searle (1996) side-steps the problem of the mind/body axis by the simple expedient of suggesting that there is no problem. Instead, he appears to adopt a Wittgensteinian approach of accepting consciousness together with all of its related properties and the physical world as axioms and then analysing the language games needed to communicate with others.

Searle (1996) dismisses 'the traditional mind/body problem' thus:

'My own view is that we need to overthrow this problem... Once we see that so-called mental properties really are just higher-level physical properties of certain biological systems, I believe this problem can be dissolved. Once it is dissolved, however, we are still left with the task of analysing what is the central problem in the philosophy of language.' (Searle,1996, pp 22-23).

If Searle is correct then laughter would simply be a human biological property which should be analysed within the different contexts and language games in which it appears (in our field of study, dramatic texts, productions and receptions).

We conclude this chapter with the observation that a neurophysiological explanation of consciousness and humour within the mind/body axis remains as elusive as a single definition of comedy. If we remain with the intuitive sense of what it is like to be human and find something laughable then we have no explanation. Alternatively, if we try to explain consciousness and humour in terms of neurophysiology, the 'feeling' of it is somehow left behind.

1 comment:

  1. 'Philosophy will be the key that unlocks artificial intelligence' by David Deutsch,, Wednesday 3 October 2012