Minsky on jokes

Steve Witham (sw@tiac.net)
Fri, 31 Jan 1997 05:49:57 -0500

Me to T0M:

>>Are you (consciously) developing Minsky's "Jokes and the Cognitive
>>Unconscious" (which is a development of Freud's ideas on jokes and


>Not consciously; perhaps not at all. I'm vaguely familar with Freud's take
>on humor, but do not recall having heard Minsky's. My slow, intermitent read
>of THE SOCIETY OF MIND continues. Is it in there?

I think so.

Okay! Freud noticed jokes often have to do with taboos. So he said
that humor seems to have to do with censors (his hypothesized thingies
that stop you from thinking in certain directions).

I don't know how well Freud developed the idea. Minsky says Freud's the
greatest. But here's what I know of how the idea ends up after Minsky:
He noticed that some jokes are just about *thinking errors*. So,

The joke sneaks you into a situation where you've made a BOOBOO--a
forbidden or wrong thought, which is recognized.
a PLEASURE--in fact a small SEIZURE of laughter--is triggered to disrupt
the progress of thought and put your mind on hold. It freezes the
error state along with a little history of what led up to it--so that
a new CENSOR can be installed.
This is an inhibition: in precursor state A, don't think thought
B (because it led to the booboo). "Don't go there," as they say.

Now, your mind is patched not to make quite the same mistake anymore.

I think Tom's idea is a nice variation and extension. A joke is a
pattern that gets past the first line of defense and triggers the
creation of new antibodies. I like this because immunity is a more
familiar and biological process than Minsky's police raid. Tom's
idea of innoculation is something that isn't as easy to see
in Minsky's picture.

But Minsky's idea of laughter as a sudden drastic intervention is
strikingly plausible and doesn't have a counterpart (that I can see--
I haven't read Tom's paper) in the immunity metaphor. It points out
that thoughts are fast, singular events taking place over a whole brain
at once, instead of slow-moving, gradual-working *little* particles
coming in hoards of duplicates like germs or genes or antibodies.

"...You thought your mom and dad were fools.
You never wanted to listen in school.
Now your mind won't go where you wanna take it..." --Devo