Scientists use quantum theory to explain why jokes are funny

For decades, researchers have tried to explain the phenomenon of humour and what happens on a cognitive level in the moment when we "get the joke".


Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 789. Whether this pun makes you giggle or groan in pain, your reaction is a consequence of the ambiguity of the joke. Thus far, models have not been able to fully account for the complexity of humour or exactly why we find puns and jokes funny but researchers now suggest a novel approach: quantum theory.

In a paper, they have outlined a quantum inspired model of humour, hoping that this new approach may succeed at a more nuanced modelling of the cognition of humour.

"Funniness is not a pre-existing 'element of reality' that can be measured; it emerges from an interaction between the underlying nature of the joke, the cognitive state of the listener, and other social and environmental factors," explained Liane Gabora from University of British Columbia, corresponding author of the paper.

This makes the quantum formalism an excellent candidate for modelling humour, Gabora added in the paper published in the journal Frontiers in Physics. The results indicate that apart from the delivery of information, something else is happening on a cognitive level that makes the joke as a whole funny whereas its deconstructed components are not, and which makes a quantum approach appropriate to study this phenomenon.

For decades, researchers have tried to explain the phenomenon of humour and what happens on a cognitive level in the moment when we "get the joke". During the build-up of the joke, we interpret the situation one way, and once the punch line comes, there is a shift in our understanding of the situation, which gives it a new meaning and creates the comical effect, the authors noted.

Although much work remains before the completion of a formal quantum theory model of humour, the findings provide an exciting first step and opens for the possibility of a more nuanced modeling of humour, the team said.

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