Hurley, Matthew M., Daniel C. Dennett, Reginald B. Adams Jr. (2011). Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. 2011. ISBN 9780262015820. Pagine 359. 29.95$
Un libro serissimo, naturalmente, anche se spesso capitoli e paragrafi sono introdotti da una barzelletta (ma joke è un po’ più polisemico di barzelletta).
All’origine del libro c’è la tesi di dottorato completata nel 2006 da Matthew Hurley, che può dunque essere considerato l’autore principale del volume. Adams e Dennett sono stati i suoi supervisors alla Tufts University. Inoltre, Dennett si era impegnato, nel suo Consciousness Explained del 1991, a fornire “a proper account of laughter” che andasse al di là della pura fenomenologia: sotto questo profilo si tratta dunque anche di una promessa tardivamente mantenuta.
Gli stessi autori introducono la loro tesi a partire da una nota nursery rhyme e anch’io seguirò le loro tracce:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
[The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes]
Soltanto che la storiella raccontata dai 3 autori prende una piega diversa:
(Their rooms where piled high with the playthings of boys:
comic books, fishing rods, discarded toys,
model planes, model trains and the dirt that goes with them
and huge piles of laundry that flowed out to the kitchen.
And try as she may to get them to sweep –
she’d scold them, and threaten, implore them, and weep;
she’d given them dust-cloths, and vacuums and brooms –
she just could not get them to clean up their rooms.)
… and, then, one night the old woman got a new idea:
She made them pajamas and bed socks of Swiffer cloth, and the next night while they slept she hid lots of candies around in their rooms, under the beds, under the piles of toys and clothes. In the morning when the children discovered the first of these candies, they went on a gleeful rampage, piling and sorting their belongings in the hunt for all the candies. By noon they were stuffed with candy-and their rooms were as orderly and clean as Martha Stewart’s front parlor. [59-64: il riferimento è come di consueto alle posizioni sul Kindle]
La tesi di fondo del libro è ben illustrata da questa metafora o parabola o filastrocca riveduta e corretta: la selezione naturale (impersonata da quella vecchia signora di Madre Natura) usa un trucco simile per indurre il nostro cervello a occuparsi del noioso debugging assolutamente necessario per sopravvivere (ancorché pericolosamente) all’accumularsi di scoperte ed errori accumulati dai nostri processi euristici. Non potendo semplicemente “comandare” al cervello di mettere in atto subroutine di pulizia (l’evoluzione non funziona così!), ha dovuto “corrompere” il cervello con il piacere: rendendo piacevole un dovere (o meglio una necessità). L’allegrezza che ci dà la scoperta di un errore d’inferenza è il senso dell’umorismo, che – una volta evolutosi – può essere “sfruttato” dagli stimoli supernormali inventati dai comici nel corso dei millenni. Come accade per il nostro gusto smodato per i dolci (e la pornografia).
Humor, we will try to show, evolved out of a computational problem that arose when our ancestors were furnished with open-ended thinking.
Il volume sviluppa questa idea di fondo in modo molto articolato, ponendo e dando risposta a 20 domande sulla “teoria cognitiva ed evoluzionistica dell’umorismo” proposta dagli autori. Ma per avere tutte le risposte dovete per forza leggere il libro.
Resta il dubbio – ma mi potrete dare una mano a scioglierlo soltanto dopo avere letto l’opera – se una teoria così ingegnosa sarebbe potuta venire in mente ad autori non anglosassoni di madrelingua, per i quali l’aggettivo funny ha due accezioni principali (cito dal Merriam-Webster online):
- a : affording light mirth and laughter : amusing
b : seeking or intended to amuse : facetious
- : differing from the ordinary in a suspicious, perplexing, quaint, or eccentric way : peculiar — often used as a sentence modifier «funny, things didn’t turn out the way we planned»
Questi gli esempi (sempre dal Merriam-Webster):
- He told a funny story.
- He’s a very funny guy.
- What are you laughing at? There’s nothing funny about it.
- There’s something funny going on here.
- She has some funny ideas about how to run a company.
- “I can’t find my keys.” “That’s funny — they were here a minute ago.”
- My car has been making a funny noise lately.
- A funny thing happened to me the other day.
- It feels funny to be back here again.
- It’s funny that you should say that — I was just thinking the same thing myself.
* * *
Pignolerie: a un certo punto  si dice che Being There (Oltre il giardino), del 1979, è l’ultimo film di Peter Sellars:
- il nome del grandissimo attore è Peter (oddio, Richard Henry detto Peter) Sellers!
- il suo ultimo film è il (peraltro non memorabile) Diabolico complotto del Dr. Fu Manchu (The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu), di cui sarebbe anche il regista (uncredited), anche se poi compare anche in Sulle orme della pantera rosa (Trail of the Pink Panther).
Trascuratezza imperdonabile per una casa editrice così importante. E dire che l’agente di Dennett è il leggendario John Brockman. In un libro sull’umorismo, poi!
* * *
Come al solito, vi propongo anche una selezione di citazioni – meno noiosa del solito, mi auguro, perché molte sono storielle e barzellette raccontate nel testo.
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny….” – Isaac Asimov 
Q: How do you tell the sex of a chromosome?
A: Pull down its genes. 
Circular definition: see Definition, circular.
There are only 10 kinds of people in the world – those who read binary and those who don’t. [483: una delle mie preferite]
Email is the happy medium between male and female. (Hofstadter 2007) 
Photons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic. 
The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face. 
An atheist explorer in the deepest Amazon suddenly finds himself surrounded by a bloodthirsty group of natives. Upon surveying the situation, he says quietly to himself “Oh God, I’m screwed!”
There is a ray of light from heaven and a voice booms out: “No, you are not screwed. Pick up that stone at your feet and bash in the head of the chief standing in front of you.”
So the explorer picks up the stone and proceeds to bash the living heck out of the chief.
As he stands above the lifeless body, breathing heavily and surrounded by a hundred natives with a look of shock on their faces, God’s voice booms out again: “Okay … Now you’re screwed.” 
We know why we are born curious: We are, as George Miller once said, informavores. Our hunger for novelty drives us to fill our heads with facts we might need some day […] [895: questa è una cosa seria, e un argomento su cui avrei molto da dire. Non qui e non ora: vi prego di avere pazienza …]
If insight is like orgasm as Gopnik’s metaphor declares, then, likewise, curiosity might be the analogue of lust. The epistemic hunger of curiosity – a burning desire to find reason and order – prompts us to fervently advance upon situations that require explanatory exertion (often to exhaustion) that ultimately leads to that religiously adored moment of insight. And just as lust suddenly dissolves into triviality with orgasm, so does the hungry feeling of curiosity hastily retreat upon the achievement of insight. Though it may have killed the cat, curiosity more than compensates for its cost: Without it we mightn’t seek answers or theories at all. 
Epistemic uncertainty – the lack of a persuasive answer to a pressing question – has its own emotional accompaniment, also called uncertainty […] 
Love is like pi – natural, irrational, and very important.
– Lisa Hoffman 
To say that you believe something is to say that that information successfully passed through your mind without triggering the emotions of confusion or humor, but quite possibly having triggered the sense of insight. 
A mental space is a region of working memory where activated concepts and percepts are semantically connected into a holistic situational comprehension model. 
People do generate – ceaselessly – a bounty of pertinent anticipations about the world, but such anticipations are not created through effortful enumeration of all possibilities followed by the comparisons of individual assessments of likelihoods for each possible future. Rather, the expectations we have at hand each are the result of current situation-pertinent thought or recollections of other pertinent-at-the-time thoughts […] 
The answer “I don’t know” is a perfectly reasonable one, though perhaps less likely, empirically, given the social pressure to provide an answer when confronted with an interrogation. 
A belief is a commitment to a fact about the world. 
What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.
– Mark Twain 
Our brains are for “producing future” (as the poet Valery once put it) […] [1541: non sono riuscito a trovare la citazione esatta. Qualcuno mi può aiutare?]
One might even venture the maxim: The more arduous and even dangerous the job, the more intense the reward system must be to ensure its completion. 
Did you hear about the fellow whose whole left side was cut off? He’s all right now. 
Gravity makes a big difference. [1735: qui è rilevante la nota, ma non sono capace di citare le note con il Kindle. Geoffrey Hinton ha proposto un interessante puzzle sull’argomento. Supponete di prendere una manciata di bastoncini di Shanghai, di lanciarli in aria e di fotografarli mentre cadono. Quanti, grosso modo – decidete voi il grado di approssimazione – sono orizzontali e quanti verticali? più o meno lo stesso numero, vero? No, falso! Ci sono infiniti modi di essere orientati orizzontalmente, N E S W NE SE SW NW eccetera, ma un solo modo di essere verticali. Rifate l’esperimento con una paccata di CD: la risposta è invertita]
We see some traces of an analytic mode of construction in the deliberate editing of jokes, making them more streamlined, punching up the punchline by changing the word order, adding a beat here, a sly misdirecting digression there; but this is, in effect, “postproduction” […] 
[…] in hearing a fiction, we enjoy it for its storytelling value, but we never commit to it as being reality and subsequently discover that it is not […] 
What did the 0 say to the 8?
“Nice belt.” 
When you look at the picture that has no woman in it (in fig. 11.1), you cannot stop yourself from seeing a woman there even if you are told ahead that she is not there. The only power the high-level belief has is in telling you that it’s not really true, after you’ve already seen her. 
Huron (2006) argues persuasively that most if not all excellence in music involves the artful alternation of fulfilled expectations and unexpected (not entirely predictable) variations. [3039: Huron, David (2006). Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Bradgord Books. 2008]
If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.
One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.
I am not young enough to know everything.
Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace. [3119. Tutte e 4 di Oscar Wilde]
People often make the mistake of thinking that “humorous” and “serious” are antonyms. They are wrong. “Humorous” and “solemn” are antonyms. I am never more serious than when I am being humorous. [3151. È una citazione di Bertrand Russell]
“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” [3154. È una citazione di Gore Vidal]
Everybody anticipates, in mental spaces, as much of the relevant future as possible, to the best of their ability given the specific knowledge they have already collected. We aspire to decide on the basis of “all things considered,” but of course we must always truncate our considerations in order to meet the deadlines of effective action. So each of us is engaged in a never-ending round of heuristic search, building partial, and risky, structures-mental spaces-that depend on jumping to conclusions-as deftly as possible. 
Both knowledge and ignorance are valuable strategic secrets. 
(A “quidnunc” – from the Latin for “what now?” – is a person obsessed with the very latest news. We all have-and should have-quidnunc tendencies, since the latest news creates an information gradient that may be exploited by others at our expense.) 
The pastime of permeating casual conversation with witticisms not only serves the simple selfish goal of flaunting one’s wit, but is also a method of trade in the currency of social capital. 
[…] “Skinnerian” as opposed to “Darwinian” hard-wired organisms […] [3651: subito dopo introduce i concetti di creature “Popperiane” e “Gregoriane”]
To be precise, you can’t give yourself gargalesis – the laughter-inducing kind of tickling we usually think of as related to humor. But, you can self-induce knismesis, which is the kind of uncomfortable tickling sensation felt when an insect crawls on your skin or even when you drag a feather lightly across your skin (Hall and Allin 1897).