Thursday, 20 March 2014

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Pencil drawing of an interpretation of a Dragon Age Inquisition character, for the aesthetic challenge and discussion of hair styles.

The aesthetics of the armour are derived from designs on Matt Rhodes's blog, a real concept artist.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Piraha & Recursive Statements

It is interesting to observe the features of conversation and ponder its context.

There is a relatively recent description of a culture demonstrating a restriction of communication to the immediacy of experience in the Piraha language and its features challenge linguistic universals proposed by Noam Chomsky and Greenberg. These linguistic universals are interesting because they are built from objective observations about the components of human communication. It is part of an argument that language is able to influence the development of culture, culture being understood as “ways of meaning” (Everett 622 : 2005) and is one that is still being discussed and has been discussed since at least the “Sapir Whorf Hypothesis” in the 1930’s and probably much earlier than that. Its probably not really an even an argument, it's not if it's how.

Piraha is spoken by approximately 450 people living along the Maici river in the Amazona state of Brazil. It is classified as a Muran language and is a recent focus of attention because it is being argued by Everett (2005) as not featuring parts of Joseph Greenberg’s set of linguistic universals, namely counting numerals, colour terms, relative tenses and challenging Chomsky’s proposed universal grammar (Nevins et al 2009) the ability to make recursive statements (Sakel 2011), which is number five on Hocketts design features of human language.

One of the easier to understand differences is the absence of counting terms. It is hard to imagine what not using counting terms would be like, numerical systems are fundamental in our culture, I wonder what local areas of our central nervous system are involved? Piraha does contain terms describing quantities, Everett (623 : 2005) provides examples such as h’oi “small size or amount”, hoi “somewhat larger size or amount” and b’a a gi “cause to come together” which is translated as “many” (Everett 623 : 2005) but numerals do not appear to be used. The Piraha are in a contact with cultures that do use numerals, such as Everetts description of portugese speaking river boat traders, and Piraha “gatekeepers” are using portuguese terms (lexical elements) without counting terms. Also Everett does describe Piraha realizing that counting is important in nonbarter economic relations and describes the subsequent unsuccessful attempt made to learn portuguese counting terms so that they could understand when a fair trade was made (Everett 626 : 2005).  

Counting is fundamental to Western culture, and is probably fundamental to the integration required for civilization and is a predominant component in the experience of modernity and the pragmatic communication of value. Examples that come to mind include childhood songs, such as Danny Kay singing “Inch worm” on episode 316 of the Muppet show, and recent discussions of Archimedes using polygons to calculate pi, the ratio of the diameter to the circumference.

Numbers are used to give abstract quantities to their subjects. In reading a translation by McDevitte & Bohn (1869) Julius Caesar's “The Gallic Wars” one becomes conscious of the characteristic interests of the author, the author (Gaius Julius Caesar) uses numbers regularly, he mentions lists obtained from the camps of the Helvetii, written in Greek, detailing the number of men able to bear arms amongst the Helvetii and their allies (Caesar Gael 3.11). The author (Gaius Julius Caesar) talks about the characteristics of the tribes, it is a pragmatic cultural analysis, focusing on military capabilities and tactics and describes a value that McDevitte & Bohn (1869) have translated as “lust for sovereignty”, which probably describes the view of members of a state system that values power, discipline and organisation and legitimizes slavery, possibly the opposite side of what we would call “the value of autonomy or freedom”.

Numbers are an important feature of Thucydides “The History of the Peloponnesian War” (411 BC) which is considered the earliest attempt at an evidence based history, describing the wars between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece (431 -404 BC). The smallest tactical unit mentioned by Thucydides is a lochus which is approximately 400 to 500 men, Xenophon used the term to describe 100 and Thucydides regularly uses the number 300 thus term lochus should be taken as the smallest tactical unit.

Differences in numbers or quantity are taken to be one Greenberg's linguistic universals, they manifest in unique nouns, verbs or noun and verb modifiers such as inflection and can be expressed by a numerical system in cultures that have them. The sparsity of ways of describing differences in number in Piraha language challenges this but there are multiple examples of hunter and gatherer populations having no specific number word other than one.

With regards to Colour terms, Piraha are able to distinguish black, white, red, yellow, blue green but do not use“colour terms” as an abstract category. Everett (628 : 2005) goes on to argue that what colour terms and numbers have in common are that they are used to quantify beyond immediate experience.

The absence of recursive statements, which Everett describes as a lack of embedding (628 : 2005) is also taken as an example of the focus of the Piraha language on immediate experience. An example of a recursive statement would be a noun phrase in a noun phrase, or a sentence embedded in a sentence, ie “(Personal pronoun) I was watching the hawk, (relative pronoun) that was watching the dove, that was watching the worm and the worm wiggled away”. The significance of recursion is proposed by Noam Chomsky as being the only trait of human communication that distinguishes it from (non human) “animal communication”. This recursive feature is related to the ability of humans to have insight into their actions.

The significance of the described absence of recursive statements in Piraha is still being discussed. Nevins, Pesetsky & Rodrigues (2009) are challenging Everett’s (2005) interpretation, they argue that the basis for the argument of an absence of recursive statements is due to a speech rule of “one event per utterance” (Nevins et al 363 : 2009). If there is a rule of one event per utterance this does not demonstrate the absence of embedding and necessitate a principle of the immediacy of experience. An example of this is evidence of someone indicating someone else has seen an event, it involves two events, the seeing of and what was seen (Nevins et al 363 : 2009) within a single utterance.

Part of Everett’s reply to this challenge by Nevins, Pesetsky & Rodrigues (2009) is that embedding is more a feature of human consciousness and that languages tend to reflect this. It is possible that the absence of embedding in Piraha language does not mean that it does not occur in Piraha thinking, concepts can make anaphoric or cataphoric references to other concepts, the quote often used is John Brockman's response “Idea’s are built inside of other ideas.” (Brockman 273 : 2013) in Thinking Edited by John Brockman and published by  Harper-Collins. Again this is still being argued about.

From Adam Scherlis (August 2010)


Everett, Daniel. (2005). Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha. In Current Anthropology. Volume 46. Number 4. August –October 2005. Pages 621 -646.

McDevitte, W.A & Bohn, W.S. (1869). Commentaries on the Gallic War. Harper’s New Classical Library, New York : Harper & Brothers, 1869.
Available at

Nevins, Andrew; Pesetsky, David & Rodrigues, Cilene. (2009). Piraha Exceptionality : A Reassessment. In Language, Volume 85, Number 2. June 2009. Pages 355 -404.

Sakel, Jeanette (2011). Transfer and language contact : the case of Piraha. In the International Journal of Bilingualism. Volume 16. Issue 1. Pages 37 -52.


Predicate : The part of a sentence that modifies the subject, one of two parts of a sentence. Ie Sentence = Subject + Predicate.

See Zero copula. Subject joined to predicate without overt indication. Feature of some Russian languages, generally only used in current tense, but there may possibly be an exception.

Useful website on the discussion

Recursion and Human Thought . Article published by Edge. @

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A sphinx scribble from paint blotches, scribbles and a coffee stain.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Of course, children tell jokes too.

In children humour is linked to development, it has developmental and social purposes. Humour requires a stable understanding of the real world, so a distinction between reality and fantasy can be made and an idea of pretence with regards to intention or action. The stable understanding required reflects the development of cognitive and social schemas formed through infancy and childhood. A schema can be regarded as a dynamic mental representation that can be used do develop models of reality, reflecting previous experience with objects, scenes and events that involve expectations of appearance, the sequence of events (Martin 2007 : 86) and outcome.

Humour is associated with incongruity between an expected variable and a perceived outcome within a single schema. There is currently a comprehension-elaboration theory of humour elicitation, proposed by Robert Wyer & James Collins (1992) that humour involves the simultaneous activation of two different schemas to understand a situation or event and the more elaboration between the two schemas, in that the two different schemas play back and forth with each other, the more it is perceived as humorous/ funny (Martin 2007 : 87). The elicitation of humour involves smiling, laughter and an emotion of mirth that is accompanied by a loss of muscle tone. This loss of muscle tone is potentially a disabling mechanism associated with the emotion of mirth, its function may be to prevent harmful behaviour (Martin 2007 : 164), this suggests that laughter may have evolved from play behaviour in mammals. Smiling in humans is an emotion display, a genuine smile is called a “Duchenne display” and involves the contraction of oricularis oculi muscles around the eyes as well as zygomatic major contraction and is associated with a reward state (Wild et al 2003 : 2122). Smiling and laughter are different displays and have different functions, smiling has origins that are more to do with a display of absence of hostile intent, while laughter is more to do with awareness of an incongruence. In humans the two displays have moved together to represent degrees of intensity of the emotion of mirth but different cognition between the displays remain. 

Smiling is present in infants during the first month, as a response to tactile and auditory stimulation associated with a caregiver and, overtime as mental representations develop, with easy recognition of people. Laughter as a response is present around 10 to 20 weeks of age and occurs in the context of infant-caregiver interaction, it occurs with some frequency within infant-caregiver play sessions (Martin 2007 : 230) and becomes more strongly associated with visual and social interactions that accompany play behaviours that induce cognitive demand on the infant (Martin 2007 : 231). The strongest associations for laughter are events that are unexpected or incongruous with a child’s developing cognitive schemas (Martin 2007 : 231). The classic “peek-a-boo” game seems to induce laughter around 6 to 12 months and the cognitive load it induces is associated with the mastering of the issue of “object permanence”, the game has an important social component, as laughter is only in response to a person playing the game, not an object.

Humour in children is most strongly related to play, which is best described by Michael Apter (1982) as being “a state of mind associated with an activity that is treated in a non-serious way, it is an activity orientated (rather than goal-oriented) mental state” (Martin 2007 : 234). There is a necessary distinction between a lie and a joke and this tends to occur around 4 years of age.

The distinction between a lie and a joke is that a joke involves an incongruity placed within a playful framework, communicated by subtle cues of intent (Semrund-Clikeman & Glass 2010 : 1250). There appears to be two major neurological components to humour, cognitive and affective. The cognitive component involves the left inferior prefrontal cortex and insula, important for processing speech sounds and the right temporal lobe for processing and integrating more subtle aspects of language. The affective component involves the right hemisphere, with focuses in the medial ventral prefrontal cortex and bilateral cerebellum (Semrund-Clikeman & Glass 2010 : 1258). Mirth associated laughter has been induced by stimulation of the fusiform gyrus and para-hippocampal gyrus , with the description of an altered perception of “the significance of things” (Wild et al 2003 : 2128).

Approximate functional areas of an adult brain. From Parsons et al 2010 : 232

Humour has a socialized component, in that the cues for “humour” are facial expressions, behavioural and vocal exaggerations and verbal labels (Martin 2007 : 235), the schema of play is useful for assimilation (fitted into pre-existing schema) of incongruous experience because it involves a fantasy assimilation where the wrong schema can be applied to objects and events and thus the incongruity is not assimilated to reality. This type of symbolic play tends to occur around 18 months of age and is described by a developmental model proposed by Paul McGhee in 1979, it is similar to, and can be elaborated with Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development.  

To have the capacity for humour children need to be able to engage in fantasy play associated with the preoperational stage of cognitive development. This first stage McGhee (1979) describes as “incongruous actions towards objects”, children from 18 months are capable of representing objects with internal mental schemas that are wrong and are possibly learned through cognitive errors that adults find humorous, which are then intentionally repeated with humorous intent (Martin 2007 : 239).

The second stage of McGhee’s humour development (1979) involves the playful use of language, termed “incongruous labelling of objects and events”. It occurs early in the third year of life and reflects the mastery of using words correctly, such as calling a cat a dog etc. A more advanced third stage reflects an understanding of the classes of objects that words refer to and the characteristics of the classes, this occurs later in the third year of life and is termed “conceptual incongruity” (McGhee 1979). The idea of differences between McGhee’s second stage and third state is challenged on the basis that infants pre-linguistic categories are based on the same categories of adults and thus the difference in the stages may simply reflect an improved vocabulary (Martin 2007 : 240). With regards to child neuroanatomy, by 3 years of age the main fiber tracts and brain structures appear to be the same as an adult (Parsons et al 2010 : 225).

McGhee’s final stage of humour development (1979) is termed “multiple meanings” and occurs around seven years of age and is described as reflecting a concrete operations stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Concrete operational cognition is characterised as the ability to predict the effects of actions on objects and situations, the ability to understand the principles of conservation and to understand that other people have potentially different perspectives. Humour associated with this stage of development is more sophisticated and reflects an understanding of the ambiguity of language in sound (phonology), components of meaning (morphology), meaning (semantics) and the rules for sentence construction (syntax) and are able to make and enjoy jokes that have multiple meanings, logical inconsistencies and inferential thinking.
The example McGhee (1979) gives of this is the following riddle,

Why did the old man tiptoe past the medicine cabinet?
Because he didn’t want to wake up the sleeping pills.”

An adult version of this, relying on the same semantic ambiguity would be,

The archeologist's career ended in ruins” (Kana 2012 : 77 from article title)

Although from adolescence to adulthood there is an increased abstraction, flexibility and critical ability in cognition, it is argued that the principles of humour achieved at the multiple meaning stage of McGhee’s humour development (1979) is representative of the beginnings of the scope present in adult life.

McGhee in 2002 proposed further classifications of the development of humour in children (Guo et al 2011), the classifications used in this developmental model are similar to the 1979 model but acknowledge the reality of approximate ages, is more empirically based and reflects the contributions of others.

Stage 1 Laughter at the attachment figure (6 to 12 or 15 months)
This describes laughter at abnormal behaviour of adults, that is accompanied by cues for playful intent. It includes abnormal face expressions, abnormal walking, voices and game playing. This may potentially reflect the emergence of components of theory of mind (Parsons et al 2010 : 234) and the use of a "permanence" schema

Stage 2 Treating an object as a different object ( 12 or 15 months to 3,4 or 5 years)
Similar to the 1979 model but potentially occurring six months earlier. The beginnings of symbolic play, treating one type of object as another type of object.

Stage 3 Misnaming objects or actions (2 to 3 or 4 years).
Using developing language skills to deliberately misname objects or actions for the purpose of humour, challenging the use of a single schema.

Stage 4 Playing with word sounds (not meaning), nonsense real world combinations, and distortion of feature of objects (3 to 5 years). Strongly associated with the use of language and play is derived from the sounds of language but may also feature challenges to schema, that appear as nonsense real world combinations.

Stage 5 Pre-riddle, transition period (5 to 6 or 7 years).
Children are interested in the verbal humour of older children but may not understand the ambiguous meaning, the presence and elaboration of multiple schemas.

Stage 6: Riddles or jokes (from 6 or 7 years). With the understanding of double meanings, semantic ambivalence they are capable of enjoying the incongruence and are functioning within the scope of adult cognition. Using the Wyer & Collins (1992) comprehension-elaboration theory of humour elicitation, they are using and elaborating multiple schemas.

There are critiques of the developmental stage model proposed by McGhee (1979) (2002). They are elaborations of Piaget's stage model of Cognitive Development, that are also linked to ideas of a stage development of morality, such as correlating the degree of mirth (humour) as a reaction to intentional and unintentional harmful outcomes with moral development (McGhee 1974), which is an interesting idea. There is a recognition that humour as used and understood, by children over two years old (Hoicka & Akhtar 2012 : 599) is a reflection of cognitive development, which includes the development of a theory of mind and the use of social schemas. It has been argued that teasing behaviour in infants from 8 months old, including the offering and withdrawing of an item and engaging in provocation disruption of other peoples activities may reflect a theory of mind, an understanding of the existence of other minds with different intentions (Mireault et al 2012 : 339). This could be a reflection of critical components of mind emerging (Parsons et al 2010 : 234). A theory of mind is implicitly demonstrated around 18 months of age, as demonstrated by an awareness of the emotional states of others (intersubjectivity) and is potentially associated with developments of the inferior parietal lobule, inferior frontal gyrus and premotor cortex, involved in the detection of agency of action (Parsons et al 2010 : 234). Explicit demonstration of theory of mind tends to emerge between four and six years of age (Parsons et al 2010 : 234) and is demonstrated by explicit evidence of attribution of a mind to others, such as children understanding that people can use "their minds" to control their emotions through use of strategies such as distraction and cognitive reframing (Bosacki 2013 : 665).


Bosacki, Sandra. (2013). A Longitudinal study of Childrens Theory of Mind, Self-Concept, and Perceptions of Humour in Self and Other. In the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. Volume 41, Issue 4. Pages 663 -674.

Guo, Juan; Zhang, XiangKui; Wang, Yong & Xeromeritou, Aphrodite. (2011). Humour among Chinese and Greek preschool children in relation to cognitive development. In the International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education. Volume 3, Issue 3, July.

Hoicka, Elena & Akhtar, Namera. (2012). Early humour production. In the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Volume 30. Pages 586 -603.

Kana, Rajesh K. & Wadsworht, Heather M. (2012). “The archeologist's career ended in ruins” : Hemispheric differences in pun comprehension in autism. In NeuroImage, Volume 62. Pages 77 -86.

Martin, Rod A. (2007). The Psychology of Humour : An Integrative Approach. Published by Burlington, MA : Elsevier Academic Press 2007. Pages 1 -421.

McGhee, Paul E. (1974). Moral development and childrens appreciation of humour. In Developmental Psychology. Volume 10, Issue 4. Pages 514 -525.

Mireault, Gina; Poutre, Merlin; Sargent-Hier, Mallory; Dias, Caitlyn; Perdue, Brittany & Myrick, Allison. (2012). Humour Perception and Creation between Parents and 3 to 6 month old Infants. In Infant and Child Development. Volume 21. Pages 338 -347.

Parsons, C.E; Young, K.S; Murry, L; Stein, A & Kringelback, M.L. (2010). The functional neuroanatomy of the evolving parent-infant relationship. In Neurobiology, Volume 91. Pages 220 -241.

Semrund-Clikeman, Margaret & Glass, Kimberly. (2010). The relation of Humour and Child Development: Social, Adaptive and Emotional Aspects. In the Journal of Child Neurology, Volume 25, Issue 10. Pages 1248 -1260.

Wild, Barbara: Rodden, Frank A; Grodd, Wolfgang & Ruch, Willibald. (2003). Neural correlates of laughter and humour. Review Article. In Brain, Volume 126. Pages 2121 -2138.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Red Dog.

Humour can be described at various levels, from a cultural level to an individual level and arguably humour is a cultural construction, a cultural capital that is used at an individual level for purposes of expressing the potential scope of human experience, and includes techniques for coping with adversity, representing uncomfortable or unconscious truths and challenging the representational ability of language itself.  Its subjects are the scope of human experience and include gender, hierarchy, ideology, economics and prejudice.  There are various  theories on humour that individually seem to focus on particular aspects such as, absurdity, repression, status hierarchies and cooperation to name a few,  but they tend to make some common observations, the most significant one being  humour reflects a set of incongruous conceptualizations or paradoxes and it is able to address taboo topics or transgress social expectations.

In  a journal article titled “The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor” by Joseph Polimeni and Jeffrey P. Reiss (2006) it describes three essential themes  that are repeatedly observed in theories of humour., but it is potentially significant to recognise that three is an awfully convenient number that people like to use. These three themes could be integrated into a single statement such that, incongruous conceptualization describes the production of a symbolic absurdity and this production is used discursively for expression which can have a political purpose in its social context.

The three themes individually described by Polimeni & Reiss (2006) are,

1) incongruous conceptualizations,
2) repressed sexual or aggressive feelings, which may be described more broadly as approaching taboo topics and transgress social expectations to achieve particular discursive objectives and
 3) humour elevates social status by demonstrating superiority or saving face. This observation can be broadened to having a foucauldian aspect involving power and identity and indicates that humour is something performed in a communicative event, even if that event is with oneself as a self reflection. The description of the demonstration of superiority may be demonstrating discursive competency although humour is used for political purposes such as designating out groups and deflecting criticism.

An example of a joke that functions predominantly by its incongruous content can be found in Carty & Musharbash (2008 :  210) description of the Red Dog joke, which is as follows.

During the summer at Yuendumu, at a time when initiation ceremonies were going on, they saw Neils dog, Barbie, running into the camp with red ochre handprints all over her body.  To translate the joke it becomes necessary to know that red ochre had significant symbolic power and was used to make things sacred and at the that initiation ceremonies had a significant gendered spatiality. The dogs owner Neil had been recently initiated and was quite fond of dogs, spending nearly as much time playing with dogs as socialising with people. Thus what was funny to the people in the camp was the absurd meaning of a red ochre on a dog and the meaning of the message of the handprints on the dog.  Of course after explaining all this the joke is dead. ( from You’ve Got to be Joking : Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology. (2008))

The incongruity found in the  Red Dog joke is due to the absurdity of the human meanings of the elements found in the Red Dog joke. Although we can appreciate the absurdity, the taboo content of the red dog joke is lost because we don’t have a full understanding of its social context, we have not internalized the rules that the joke transgresses. An example of a joke that features a significant understandable transgressive content is Purdies Errol Flynn joke.

Erroll Flynn invited a group of friends to dinner and gave them (insert a series of items and activities, entertainment that reflects opulence). At last a dwarf musician appeared who played an incredible selection of jazz and classical rock. All the guests wanted to know where Flynn had found this dwarf genius, and in the end he explained. “I did a good turn for this witch” he said “and she said she would give me anything I wanted. The trouble is, she’s a bit deaf, and she though I asked for a twelve inch pianist” (Purdie 1993 : 35) (from Comedy theory and the postmodern (2006)).

The transgressive or taboo element is the suggested knowledge that Erroll Flynn did not want a twelve inch pianist.  To get the joke the audience has to know the most likely word that rhymes with pianist, which is also suggested by the adjectival component “twelve inch” thus the jokes incongruous conceptualization is the derived semantic ambiguity of the noun phrase.

There is also a social dimension to the Errol Flynn joke. This joke dates to at least the late 1930’s as Errol Flynn was a famous silver screen Hollywood actor who was known for his swashbuckling roles and had a reputation for womanizing. Thus the social context of the joke is that Errol Flynn is someone known for his opulent lifestyle and sensationalised affairs and the dwarf is assumed to be part of this opulent lifestyle, this assumption is challenged by the semantic ambiguity of the punchline.

The different functions and content of the humour suggests that a cross cultural comparison if made, would be most productive if it included an attempt to compare similar functions and content.

An example of classifying humour by function, with lose associations with content can be found in Alfred Malinowski’s (2013) Characteristics of Job Burnout and Humour amongst Psychotherapists.  Its uses a four part scheme by Malinowski (2013) with the opposing categories of  affiliative humour vs aggressive humour and  self enhancing humour vs self defeating humour. This study provides classifications of the discursive functions humour is used and expands on the social status theme observed by Polmeni & Reiss (2006). 

The classification of self defeating humour is correlated with emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, while self enhancing humour is correlated to personal accomplishment (Malinowski 2013). Depersonalisation is describing a cynical and negative attitude that distances the individual from the (social) situation. Humour used reduces the amount of anxiety and worry and produces positive emotions. Aggressive humour tends to have a negative effect on the user and relationships. Adaptive humour consists of affiliative humour and self-enhancing humour (from Martin et al 2003) that forms and reinforces friendships, group relationships and group cohesion. Self enhancing humour is correlated with an individual’s emotional well being.

Examples of adaptive humour can be seen in Mahedev Aptes (1985) synthesis of  joking relationships, commonly seen between extended relatives in preliterate societies. The joking appears to have the function of reducing potential conflict and aggression. Tribal clowns as described by Colin Turnbull in his book Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of African Pygmies,  a study of the Mbuti seem to have “face saving” functions despite their interfering role (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 : 358), this is a social role .

Aggressive and Self defeating humour seems to be correlated with emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a lack of a sense of personal accomplishment (Malinowski 2013). Aggressive humour is the type of humour that uses sarcasm and teasing to relieve tension and to attract attention. Aggressive humour may negatively effect the relationship of individuals and lead to a lack of social support in times of crises. Self defeating humour is humour that is used to make degrading remarks about oneself for the approval of others, saying something critical or comical about oneself to make other people laugh. Self defeating humour is correlated with high levels of anxiety, depression and lower levels of self esteem. These are correlations and correlation does not necessarily mean causality.

What these classifications potentially describe in my opinion is play behaviour being introduced into situations of adversity that has been classified into a four part scheme, certain types of humour will be used by the individual when experiencing emotional exhaustion and the compromise of normative expectations associated with a just world hypothesis. Aggressive humour may be used in situations of intra-group / inter-group competition and reflect the political situation of contested ground. I suspect that “play behaviour” in the context of situations of aggression is potentially dangerous as it reflects the depersonalization of the user and a reduced evaluation of consequence, as “play is unreal”. I think this is what makes the image of the Joker so malevolent, malice in the context of reduced evaluation of consequence.

Perhaps adaptive humour is part of the process of evaluating the situation, but there may be Focauldian processes in its evaluation. For example the use of self defeating humour for the approval of others may be an affiliative behaviour, a way of saving face. It can have discourse goals (Burgers, Mulken & Schellens 2013) such as diminishing or enhancing criticism by communicating the disparity between reality and the ideal, the correlation of anxiety, depression and lower levels of esteem may not be a  causal relationship but simply a reflection of the situation and its toll on the individual, correlation, not cause.

Language in its broadest sense refers to a symbolic system that is central to the construction of subject identity (Pye 55 : 2006) and humour in its many forms is a game of symbolic manipulation in which the psychological and textual converge, and this game can use breaks in the symbolic system to convey existential absurdity and human suffering (Pye 55 : 2006). The “breaks” are the overloaded signifying structures, the signifiers and signified that are used in a semantic space. This is the significance of the red dog joke, the red dog represents a break in the symbolic system, as it is an overloaded signifier.  A competent adult doing this is demonstrating his awareness of the procedures of signification and is therefore asserting an identity as a fully competent adult showing skill in discourse. A child doing this may simply be learning how to use language, which adults will find amusing, see types of narratives contained in the comedy section of Readers Digest. Of course children tell jokes too.

A Foucauldian aspect is the construction of individuals as a focus of humour, where the victim of the joke, comic figure, does not have full control of the signifying system and thus is constructed as being discursively incompetent.  Other breaks in the symbolic system are used to produce taboo results and transgress social expectations, which are part of their appeal.

Does this explanation correspond to things that can be said to be demonstrably real, to something biological? Damage to the central nervous system tends to suggest the areas involved in processing humour. Epilepsy patients with damage to the frontal cortex have been described as acquiring a “humourless” personality and brain lesions to the right hemisphere tend to have the greatest cognitive impairment on humour appreciation. The right hemisphere is involved in “global attention” and the expression and comprehension of emotion, and this includes the interpretation of emotional material presented linguistically (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 :  356).

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of unimpaired individuals found that activation in the prefrontal cortex (MVPFC) bilaterally ” correlated with how funny a joke is” (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 : 355).  The importance of the left inferior frontal cortex for the reconciliation of ambiguous semantic content with stored knowledge in humour was suggested by a study by Moran et al (2004), described by Polemi & Reiss (2006), which monitored humour detection & appreciation in individuals watching The Simpsons and Seinfeld comedies in an event related MRI experiment and found significant activation of the left posterior middle temporal gyrus, left inferior temporal gyrus, right posterior middle temporal gyrus and right cerebellum. The temporal lobes tend to be related to the language component of humour and prefrontal cortex is intimately involved in humour, in its detection of semantic ambiguity and humour appreciation

The prefrontal cortex has many higher cognitive functions and has projections from the subcortical dopaminergic reward system. Its involvement in attention, incorporation of emotional behaviour, semantic memory retrieval, episodic memory, working memory and theory of mind suggest (Polimeni & Reiss 2006 : 356) and  demonstrate the complexity of the cognitive processes involved in humour detection and appreciation.

Humor is generally understood to be a pleasurable, at least to the competent adults engaging in the activity and thus must be linked to the subcortical dopaminergic reward system. From an evolutionary perspective there is likely a direct or indirect selective pressure for its existence and perhaps it is related to play behaviour in mammals generally, which have learning functions. Mammalia is the only phylum in the animal kingdom to feature play behaviour and many features of human evolution have been extended from neotenic origins. This could be an example of a selected feature in human evolution deriving from a juvenile state, a neontic feature retained into adulthood that has been used in complex ways to serve a variety of functions. 

"From Thatababy comic strip. By Paul Trap (2013)"
Comic from Thatababy. By Paul Trap (2013)


Burgers, Christian; Mulken, Margot van & Schellens, Peter Jan. (2013). The use of co-textual irony markers in written discourse. From Humour 2013, Volume 26, No 1. Pages 45 -68.

Carty, John and Musharbash, Yasmine. (2008). You’ve Got to be Joking : Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology. In the Anthropological Forum. Volume 18. Number 3. November 2008. Pages 209 -217.

Malinowski, Alfred. (2013). Characteristics of Job Burnout and Humour amongst Psychotherapists.  From Humour 2013, Volume 26, No 1. Pages 117 -133.

Moran, J.M.; Wig, G.S; Adams, R.B; Janata, P & Kelley, W.M. (2004). Neural correlates of humour detection and appreciation. In NeuroImage. Volume 21. Pages 1055 -1060.

Mosko, Mark S. (2009). The Symbols of “Forest” : A Structural Analysis of Mbuti Culture and Social Organization. In the Journal American Anthropologist, Volume 89, No 4 . Pages 896 -913.

Polimeni, Joseph & Reiss, Jeffrey. (2006). The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor. In Evolutionary Psychology. Volume 4. Pages 347 -366.

Pye, Gillian. (2006). Comedy Theory and the post modern. In Humour 2006, Volume 9, No 1. Pages 53 -70.

Recommended Websites

David Raymond Davis (April 2011) writes about Collin Turnbull in “The Deconstruction Zone”

Collin Turnbull (1961) provides examples of intra-group toleration  amongst the Mbuti and it would have been potentially productive to compare humour communicating the value of toleration. Its worth noting that the book People of the Forest (1961) has been described as a kind of fairy tale that can be deconstructed according to the psychological needs of Collin Turnbull, it’s a harsh analysis but illuminating.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Summary of “Great Plagues of the Past and Remaining Questions” by Cheston B. Cunha & Burke A. Cunha. (2008)

Covers three of the most famous, historically recorded plagues of the ancient world, the plague of Athens (430- 426 BC) described by Thucydides, the Antonine Plague (166- 270 AD) described by Galen and the Justinian Plague (542- 590 AD), described by Procopius. Cunha et al (2008) have produced tables of the features of descriptions of the three plagues and attempted to give a most probably cause on the basis descriptions match to the etiology of known infectious disease.

Of the diseases described, the symptoms of the Antonine plague seem the most precise and objective, it is written by Galen and it describes an exanthema covering the whole body and the blood content of blisters. “Putrified blood like some ash which nature had deposited on the skin” and the healing process,” where part of the surface called the scab fell away and then the remaining part nearby was healthy” . Galen describes the course of the disease, for a surviving patient, through the experience of a young man. On the basis of Galen’s description Cuhna et al (2008) indicates that the Antonine Plague was probably small pox spreading through immunologically naive populations, the recurrence of the plague was its spread to populations previously unexposed.  

The description of the Justinian Plague by Procopius reliably indicates that it was Yersinia pestis, with the revealing description of bubonic swellings developed in the groin of the body, armpit, behind the ear and along the thighs. Procopius writes without the theories or the medical agenda of Galen and gives a general account of the relayed symptoms and hypothesized history, describing the failure of physicians in making an accurate prognosis of the course of the disease for many patients. In this way Procopius’s archive allows the most reliable diagnosis of the three.

The description provided Thucydides is regrettably inconsistent with one disease cause, though Thucydides experienced the disease himself, the descriptions he provides seems to describe several disease states but Cuhna et al (2008) give a best fit of epidemic typhus, the causative organism Rickettsia prowazekii.

In each of the great plagues described there have been significant repercussions that have potentially affected the course of history. Athens, without the plague may have won the Peloponnesian War, without the Antonine plague Rome may not have had the loss of manpower and may have solved the crisis seen in third century differently and the without the Justinian Plague the Eastern Roman Empire may have had a longer lasting restoration of the west in the 7th Century. The plagues in retrospect can be seen to be the products of their host societies situations and successes. Increased population movement, long distance infrastructure, war time conditions and trade networks facilitated the spread of disease.


Cunha, Cheston B & Cunha, Burke A. (2008). Great Plagues of the Past and Remaining Questions. In D. Raoult & M Drancourt (eds). Paleomicrobiology: Past Human Infections. Published by Spring-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. Pages 1- 20.