Humor and Joy in Learning


One might surmise that the evolutionary function of humor was to make a person feel joy instead of fear when he experiences something that is totally foreign to his existing knowledge structure.

But I think this situation could only occur if the person had closed down his "implicit learning" system, because "implicit" (unconscious) learning automatically integrates new and different experiences, even if they're incongruous. That is its function.

Maybe Nature prepared us with a "sense of humor" to face this exact scenario where instead of keeping our mind open, we for whatever reason did keep our ideas fixed (like "encoding algorithms"!).

Is this system denied to lower forms of life? Why would it be? Of course, they don't have language and so "explicit learning" is denied them. But are they capable of shutting off their unconscious learning system, as humans are, and so hobbling themselves from seeing reality? Are they, like us, capable of keeping their knowledge structure from changing? If so, why wouldn't they too feel the sensation of "humor" (indistinguishable from other instances of joy) just as we do when having a totally incongruous experience? Just because they don't laugh, that isn't proof they don't feel joy!

Chinese sounds can be very amusing to the American ear, especially recordings that are made for children where the speaker is impersonating different literary characters. It is revealing that when listened to "unconsciously" these sounds are no longer amusing at all! They are merely more data to be integrated into the cognitive unconscious.

Euday Bowman's Twelfth Street Rag

In 1914 Euday Bowman composed "Twelfth Street Rag". He sold it to some guy for a few dollars. This became one of the most recorded and most popular tunes in history. It made millions for everyone but Bowman himself. I actually remember it from when I was a kid. You couldn't turn around without hearing it. Bowman never had another hit and died in poverty. (Although he later wrote "Eleventh Street Rag" and "Thirteenth Street Rag" neither of which anyone has heard of).

There are numerous other examples in the history of Ragtime where composers were totally ripped off and their work stolen or sold for a pittance.



When you seek knowledge from sounds (such as words or music), surprisingly cognition can occur only when you suppresses the sounds into the background in your mind! This is similar to hearing a conversation in the next room but not being able to make out anything that is being said.

When you do make out something - anything! - cognition momentarily stops!

To momentarily “shut sounds into the next room,” all you have to do is blow softly out through your mouth; or touch your lips lightly (as in Rodin’s Thinker”). Maybe because humans’ cognitive machinery pre-dates language and language inherently makes reference to old ideas. Cognition is new ideas. By activating--for something other than language--the cranial nerves responding to input around the mouth (mainly, the trigeminal nerve), you can momentarily suppress language and the old ideas that go with it.

Cognition is completely unconscious and cannot be controlled. It is new knowledge, the nature and even the existence of which comes into awareness over a shorter or longer period of time.

You have to just allow yourself to be open to perceiving the world with “new eyes,” and be prepared to have everything thrown continually into disarray. Someone has actually made a movie about this (The Giant Mechanical Man”).

All this raises the question what exactly a a person can accomplish in school, beyond just learning to read words or music. “Education” insists that knowledge must be grasped consciously and at will, through a given format of language. This is not cognition. “Education” simply does not allow the “student” to “shut things in the other room”.

Someone who graduates from school is exactly the same person who went in, but probably with a lot of pre-packaged ideas stored up for possibly eavesdropping on later! But it is certainly possible to educate yourself by reading books while “shutting the words into the other room,” and only “kind of” hearing the sounds. This is a type of cognition, and can be done by anyone as long as he’s not in a school!

The thrust of an author’s points is not readily learned in this way. The mind doesn’t like sentences or paragraphs, but the individual word or (small) group of words. This is the working material of cognition. Cognition does not abstract the author’s arguments, but the author’s concepts!

All this becomes perfectly obvious as your eavesdropping goes on!.

By the same token, you can profitably go back to the same well many, many times. (If you simply memorized all the author’s words you would still have to repeat them to yourself subconsciously (“in the next room”), with the ideas that go with them, over and over to accomplish the same thing).

Learning can’t happen in school. It has to happen when you can see things or ideas “with new eyes”. Shut the things or ideas into the next room and close the door.

If you are in junior high and you want to be a doctor, take a few minutes every day and eavesdrop on a page or two of General Chemistry by Linus Pauling (currently 35 cents on Amazon) or an antiquated (i.e., cheap) edition of Gray’s Anatomy. Try to keep yourself from grasping anything! (Perhaps best to read every other line). Repeat this process again and again, with a month or two between. You won’t realize it for a while, but you will be eons ahead of your classmates!

Your teacher is hopefully someone who has done a lot more cognition than you have. But all he can do is motivate you. He can’t do it for you. Most of what school can do for you has already been done!