Whether we find puns and jokes funny can be predicted using quantum theory, say scientists who are developing a mathematical model that can help decode the complexity of humour.
Aiming to answer the question of what kind of formal theory is needed to model the cognitive representation of a joke, researchers suggest that a quantum theory approach might be a contender.
Researchers at University of British Columbia in Canada outlined a quantum inspired model of humour.
This new approach may succeed at a more nuanced modelling of the cognition of humour and lead to the development of a full-fledged, formal quantum theory model of humour, researchers said.
This initial model was tested in a study where participants rated the funniness of verbal puns, as well as the funniness of variants of these jokes (eg the punchline on its own, the set-up on its own).
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 from a range of different fields have tried to explain the phenomenon of humour and what happens on a cognitive level in the moment when we "get the joke".
This is the first time that a quantum theory approach has been suggested as a way to better understand the complexity of humour, researchers said.
Previous computational models of humour have suggested that the funny element of a joke may be explained by a word's ability to hold two different meanings (bisociation), and the existence of multiple, but incompatible, ways of interpreting a statement or situation (incongruity).
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.
However, researchers said that it is not the shift of meaning, but rather our ability to perceive both meanings simultaneously, that makes a pun funny.
This is where a quantum approach might be able to account for the complexity of humour in a way that earlier models cannot.
"Quantum formalisms are highly useful for describing cognitive states that entail this form of ambiguity," said Liane Gabora from the University of British Columbia.
"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," said Gabora.
The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Physics.
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