Neural Linguist
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Neural Linguist

Thou Art Funny

In a safe space, humour can lend traction to digesting difficult technical subjects

The Cheshire cat appears with a grin, and disappears the same way. In neuroscience, the suppression of sight in one eye when motion is introduced to the visual field of the other eye is know as the Cheshire Cat effect. In other words, let’s say you stand in front of a sideways mirror, your nose aligned to the edge. You are looking at a sleeping cat with your left eye. With your right, you are looking at the reflection of a forest in the mirror. Suddenly, a herd of buffalo dart across the serene woodlands. At this moment, your left eye fails to perceive the sleeping cat — it disappears from your field of view without a trace.

Last Sunday, Princeton’s Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students streamed a panel of women comedians in light of the release of a book by Amy Solomon ’14. It was moderated by President Emerita Dr. Shirley Tilghman, professor of molecular biology and public policy. It was a conglomeration of minds from different professional backgrounds convening over the theme of women in comedy and the role of comedy in isolating times like the coronavirus pandemic. What is it about laughter that connects people at a fundamental level, one which transcends societal and Zoom-fatigue barriers?

Daliso Chaponda, a comedian from the show Britain’s Got Talent (credit: Manchester Evening News)

Improv in science: a safe environment of the “yes and”

Comedy is largely about the spontaneous, the opposite side of the ‘obligation spectrum’. Maybe it’s the reason we find cats funny — they do something totally unexpected, but they are so proud and roll with it. Similarly, going awry from the path of perceived expectation can induce teasing. Not what you have to do, but what you suddenly have the urge to do. Spontaneity goes a long way in the world of making people laugh. But that is not to say the art of comedy needs no preparation. Professional comedians go through years and months of painstaking ‘training’, if you will, to hone their craft of finding the perfect punchline and nailing the timing.

Timing is crucial in the pursuit of making an audience laugh. Improv comedy is the pinnacle of spontaneity in that what is thrown about on the stage in the form of plot or character needs to come from total surprise on the part of both the performer and audience. This seems completely opposite of a painstakingly rehearsed scientific talk or meeting in any professional setting. It is often assumed that the seeming seriousness behind convened discussions takes place during working hours while any attempt to unwind unfolds for employees in the evening or weekends. But could it be that introducing a comedic element, if not the strict genre itself, makes the entire professional endeavour not only more enjoyable but also fruitful?

Comedy makes people feel safe; laughter is associated with a safety and play signal. Children play in the face of disaster not because they do not care about the atrocities going on in the world. They do so, masked in a pandemic, for example, because the spirit of play is so crucial to their resilient growing up in an imperfect society. In a similar vein, a shared humour allows all façades to crumble down and allows for true connection to form between participants. It strips the ice off of an awkward situation — one where everyone wants to connect with everyone, but cannot do so for various societal and cultural reasons. Humour allows for the truly ridiculous, the facts that cannot possibly be discussed without squirming, to be out in the open. It gives us the OK not to take the painful world, and ourselves, too seriously.

It’s funny because it’s true.

Roping in humour and comedy into science communication may seem like a long shot. Once you start to dissect something, it ceases to become funny. The jokee’s autonomous act of resolving an incongruity is thrown into the light of exposition and the joy in doing so is forcefully delegated to the joker. A comical approach can make the subject in question endearing. The more technical a concept may be, by drawing analogies and connections from the most unexpected disciplines and cultural phenomena, the better the gorge between a scientist and layman can lessen.

There is a long way to go to normalise any structured incorporation of humour into a scientific or professional setting. In science communication in particular, it is often the case that any attempt to understand where the public funding of science goes to — in research studies and the like — gets muddied by the highly technical nature of their results and implications. Could a shared desire to let defences down and simply share a laugh together by not taking one another too seriously in a safe environment actually lead to not only a more scientifically literate citizenry, but heightened accountability for researchers themselves as well? I rest my imperfect case.



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