Patterns of Innovation: Understanding Creativity through Humour

Micaela Tam

Why are jokes funny? The incongruity theory, well championed by many intellectuals, generally states that humour is the realisation of something incongruous. It is the perceived incongruity between one element or situation (an expected concept) and another unconnected element (the actual object it represents). In other words, jokes are the unlikely combination of the expected and unexpected — most jokes are funny because they come with a twist that goes against our initial conceptions or expectations. They contain a surprise, a sudden shift in perspective.

Particularly, Arthur Koestler’s 1964 The Act of Creation provides support for the incongruity theory. But Koestler’s theory is not just limited to humour. In fact, he postulates that all human creativity — whether it be in the realm of humour, scientific inquiry or art — follows a common pattern he terms as bisociation. Bisociation explains new ideas as the combination of elements taken from two or more previously unrelated patterns. In this manner, he contends that humour occurs when an expected outcome compatible with a particular matrix or frame of reference/situation is switched with an alternative matrix, the punchline. Jokes are funny because two or more unrelated matrices intersect. For example, puns use a single phonetic form with two meanings. We’ve all heard knock knock jokes, which are structured in a punny (ha ha) question-answer manner.

A classic knock knock joke

Or take the Pigeons and Planes’ recent mashup of Kanye West’s tweets with New Yorker cartoons. This juxtaposition of two unconnected topics went viral on Twitter, garnering thousands of likes and retweets. So, humour exhibits a combinatorial nature, one that follows patterns of innovation.

It is important to note, in Koestler’s words, that “the term ‘bisociation’ is meant to point to the independent, autonomous character of the matrices which are brought into contact in the creative act.” This is noteworthy in the context of multi-sector partnerships (as Professor Fitzgibbon states in our interview), which “bring together otherwise autonomous nodes, or groups who collaborate around a shared problem.” Each partner, operating autonomously and with different expertise, brings unique resources to solve a problem. This is the essence of creative success, the reason why such partnerships open doors to new possibilities, the formula of innovation.

Koestler’s The Art of Creativity is increasingly relevant in a world where there are more opportunities to participate and communicate through diverse, cross-disciplinary networks. Once we make creative breakthroughs, we have a tendency to become complacent. We take for granted already existing ideas and we forget to build upon them. We must remember that every new innovation creates new opportunities and new needs. Thus, we end today’s article with Arthur Koestler’s timeless words: “the discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it.”


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