Hello All, More from Ithaca. Some of you may not have read "Journey to
the Center of My Mind" by Stephen S. Hall in yesterday's New York Times
Magazine (June 6, 1999, 122-128), which addresses latest research in
neurolinguistics and MIR (magnetic resonance imaging) brainscanning.
Much major research on language centers in the brain is being done at
MIT by Stephen Pinker, among others, and writer Stephen S. Hall, manages
to convince Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, one of the most
prestigious centers in the world, to allow him to participate in a study
being conducted by Professor Joy Hirsch. While all this work at MIT and
other universities has fascinating ramifications for linguistics in
general--language acquisition, memory, consciousness, cognition,
learning--I'd like to quote a section describing Hall's experience with
the MIR, as my second response to Jason's intriguing question: how
exciting is humor; where's the action. I should say that this isn't my
special area of interest in humor studies, except that as a teacher I'm
fascinating with how learning and creativity takes place, and I've been
following Stephen Pinker's and Chompsky's discussions of linguistics and
"...The more complex the task, the more dispersed the brain's activity.
The pattern in the scans stopped looking like a landscape with a few
isolated peaks and more like a circuit with an extravagant number of
The potential link between circuitry and consciousness became
especially clear when we went looking for the seat of humor. Joy showed
me Gary larson cartoons, first with neutral, unfunny captions and then
with their proper punch lines. Perhaps because of the circumstances,
one cartoon in particular had me struggling to suppress a laugh. It
showed a group of doctors in the midst of brain surgery. The neutral
caption read, 'Operating Room'; the Larson caption had one of the
surgeons exclaiming: 'Wow! His brain still uses vacuum tubes!'
In response to this and other cartoons, my brain looked like those
aerial shots of Southern California during brush-fire season: there
were little embers of neural activity all over. The hippocampus lighted
up, suggesting the involvement of memory; the thalamus on the right side
became active (the first time we'd seen that in any of our experiments),
suggesting sensory processing, and we even detected a little activity in
the sensorimotor cortex which normally controls physical movement. Joy
immediately thought 'smile,' and I thought 'laugh." Like a Chopin
impromptu, my 'humor network' hit a great many notes, high in the brain
and low, and did so with lightning rapidity: visual processing,
language processing, memory, the perception of a cognitive disjunction,
and all of it seemingly wired to trip a laugh instantaneously.
Moreover, this network began to suggest something more complex than mere
cognition--something like consciousness, for humor is very personal,
turning as it does on such idiosyncratic traits as one's sense of irony,
cognitive dissonance and Schadenfreude. The network we were seeing,
with its unique linkages, represented MY sense of humor."
I thought you might find this description relevant to Jason's question
of significant areas of humor studies. Pretty exciting stuff, no?
Mary Ann (Rishel) [log in to unmask]