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Does Humor Help Us To Be Creative?

"If at first the idea is not absurd, then there's no hope for it." Albert Einstein

Most human beings recognize humor very early in life. My grandson, who is five months old, has been laughing at things for about a month now. He is old enough to know when something is humorously out of whack, like his father making funny sounds and faces, and can distinguish between that and something scary or mundane.

As we grow older, most of us go out of our way to find and experience humor. We search for content on social media that makes us laugh, we watch sitcoms on TV, we seek out friends and life partners with a sense of humor, etc. Humor is fun, and laughing makes us feel good, releasing dopamine and endorphins into our blood that boosts our mood. It’s also a social lubricant that eases the way to healthy relationships. And it makes us feel like everything is okay, we don’t have to take everything so seriously, life is meant to be happy.

We also remember better when something has humor attached to it, and that oftentimes creates something we can share with people close to us. “Remember when?” stories cause our bonds to strengthen as we laugh at the memory of something humorous that we shared in the past. It’s been demonstrated that students who watch a funny movie before a test do significantly better on that test than others they have taken.

But what about humor’s role in our ability to create? 

Not all types of humor contribute to our creativity. There’s release humor, when we laugh at something we mistakenly thought was scary or threatening (“It’s a TIGER!... oh, sorry….it’s a kitten.”), there’s superior humor, as when we laugh at someone else’s misfortune (think slipping on a banana peel). Surprise is usually a component of effective humor. Even knock-knock jokes have some element of surprise in them, and that surprise is part of the fun of humor, and part of what makes us have positive physical feelings, as long as no danger is involved.

But the humor that’s most helpful to us creatively is when weird things come together, as when a comedian takes an object and uses it for a surprising purpose or a comedy troupe goes against social norms in unique and unexpected ways. 

So what is it inside of us that recognizes humor when we experience it? We are just beginning to study a part of the human brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus, and its function (in part) is to make non-obvious connections. When we hear a joke like, “Where does the general keep his armies?” and the answer is “In his sleevies”, it takes us off guard, as our brain tries to make the connection between the question and answer. The PST sulcus helps us to figure it out, and see the humor in the joke. 

The recognition of what the PST sulcus does is great news for humanity, because non-obvious connections have moved us ahead (such as the invention of the printing press) and kept us out of all kinds of doo-doo (the accidental discovery of penicillin). Even the threshing machine that collects wheat started with someone seeing shears being used to cut hair in a barbershop, and wondering if a similar tool could be used to quickly and efficiently cut and collect the grain. Going from a haircut to harvesting wheat is clearly a big jump in cognitive musing.

But it’s also great news for creators, because we actually depend on our PST sulcus to do the heavy lifting for us when we’re coming up with ideas. And we creators need to come up with a lot of ideas if we want to stay in business, whether we’re artists, musicians, inventers or code writers. So, how can we continue to generate ideas and not reach a dreaded dead end, writer’s block, a dry well?

It turns out that there are two components that are essential to cranking out new stuff: the willingness to be silly (which puts no judgment or limit on our ideas), and the ability to spit out a LOT of ideas. And when I say a lot of ideas, that means at least ten, and the more after that you can come up with, the better. The first ten are probably going to be obvious and already part of our collective cultural grammar. But the ideas after ten begin to get pretty whacky and out of the norm, and that’s exactly what we need to get us to a deeper insight of a problem.

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.Barry Kudrowitz

Barry Kudrowitz has been studying human ideas for his whole career, and he was able to conclude from his tests and studies that the most creative, idea generating people on the planet are (drum roll): improv troupes of comedians.

When you learn improvisational comedy, to be successful you are taught that when someone throws an idea at you, 1. you must defer judgment of that idea (by saying/thinking “Yes, and?”), and 2. you must build on the ideas put forth, i.e. generate LOTS more ideas (no matter how ridiculous). Improv troupes are used to doing this, and like most things we practice, get better at it over time.

But this is the exact opposite of how most people experience life. We are taught from birth that silliness is for infants, after that, it’s time to get serious. We need to learn and work and obey and toe the line, not come up with ridiculous ideas that nobody else understands. In other words, a lot of creativity is being lost simply because we don’t comprehend how it originates.

There’s a scene in Netflix’s “Tick Tick Boom!” where Broadway composer Jonathan Larson is desperate for cash, so he enlists to be in on a corporate brainstorming session with some other participants. He blows them all out of the water because of his fountain of new ideas, and they all look at him open-mouthed, wondering where this stream is coming from. But the point is, it’s what he does every day, and it’s what all of us could be doing every day if we knew that it’s our true nature, and in our best interest to do so.

And humor, silliness, nonsense, or whatever you want to call it, that part of us that is so often neglected or overlooked as a tool, may be the generator of our deepest creative ideas.

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