Research Blog: What are you laughing at?

Jim Davies is an associate professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton. Davies recently published his book, “Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One With the Universe.”

For the last several years, Davies has researched why people find certain things compelling. The Charlatan’s Anne McKinnon caught up with Davies by email to ask him about his studies.

The Charlatan (TC): What is your current area of research?

​Jim Davies (JD): The main work that I do, with my graduate students, investigates human imagination. When people imagine things, they create scenes in their heads. We investigate what goes into those scenes and where those things go. For example, if somebody imagines a scene with a car in it, it is likely that they will imagine a road beneath the car. We make computer programs that imagine scenes the same way people do.

For the last several years I have been investigating why people find things compelling. For example, we might find a movie riveting, or a painting beautiful, or we might not be able to look away when someone falls down the stairs. This investigation resulted in a popular science book I just published called “Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One With the Universe.”

The basic argument of the book is that there are a few psychological foundations that underlie everything we find compelling, from jokes, to movies, to religion.

TC: What sparked your interest in this area of study?

​JD: I’ve always been interested in the arts, as an amateur, from cartooning, to theatre, to writing. As I was trained as a scientist I started to wonder if there had been any empirical science done on how art works. When I started looking into it, I noticed there was a great deal of similarity with the emerging cognitive science of religion, even though those fields don’t talk to each other.​

TC: Why were you interested in discovering why we find things funny?

​JD: Funny things are compelling. We seek out funny experiences, so I wanted to know why. ​

TC: Why do we find certain things funny?

​JD: The best theory I’ve seen is that of benign violation. It’s really a theory of laughter, rather than humour specifically. It holds that we tend to laugh when we have some violation of expectation, or feeling of danger, when we are actually not in danger. That is, something appears to be dangerous or threatening, but it’s really not. This explains why we laugh when we see people we didn’t expect to, when we ride roller coasters, and also why we laugh at jokes. Jokes always involve something unexpected, but jokes are almost always told in a safe context. ​

TC: What other areas does this research contribute to, or where could it be applied?

​JD: I think this work would be interesting to artists, game designers, marketers, and anybody who wants to create compelling experiences.​ Good artists know intuitively how to make things riveting, but this book explains how it all works. What I hope is that people reading my book will come to better understand how their own minds work, so that when they encounter beautiful ideas, they can be a bit more on guard, more skeptical. There are lots of bad but beautiful ideas out there.

I want to help them build their cognitive immune systems.