08 June 2011


LAUGHTER. What situations, events, or behaviors make us laugh? Why are some jokes funny, and others not so much? Slate suggests that if there is a single, unified theory of humor, it may be found in a new book called Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. The authors, a cognitive scientist, a philosopher, and a psychologist, "assert that humor serves an evolutionary purpose. In comprehending the world, we sometimes commit too soon to conclusions we've jumped to. The humor emotion, mirth, rewards us for figuring out where we've made such mistakes. In developing this view, the authors considered -- but ultimately had to discard -- some long-cherished theories. They present five such hypotheses, and the jokes that demonstrate they don't hold water." Among the five are:

~ The Superiority Theory

~ The Incongruity and Incongruity-Resolution Theories

~ The Benign Violation Theory

~ The Mechanical Theory

~ The Release Theory

The pursuit of a single, unified theory can be an elusive goal, whether in explaining Einsteinian relativity or in explaining humor. Check out the article and see what you think.

While in the realm of laughter and happiness, The World's Happiest People considers the people of Denmark, a nation which has the "highest well-being of any country in the world, according to a recent Gallup Poll, with 72 percent of Danish people 'thriving'. (The world median is just 21 percent.) In addition, during World War II, the country rescued almost all Jewish Danes from impending [Nazi] atrocities. A kind of positive psychology underlies both accomplishments. People who trust their government and their neighbors, and who resist abuses in their society, are more likely to feel a sense of well-being in their lives.

" .... How do Danes reconcile their standing up and rescuing others with their traditional reluctance to stand out? Danes are taught not to tolerate abusive behavior, and to speak their minds even if others disagree .... What may be essential are the supporting networks between people and groups that enhance social capital, a major predictor of national happiness."

I recall that when Germany invaded Denmark during World War II, and decreed that all Jews must wear Star of David armbands, King Christian X responded that all Danes would wear the armbands, and he himself put on the first one. I was struck by the sterling courage and humane solidarity of the country, in the face of such a ruthless, bloodthirsty adversary. The Danes are entitled to their happiness, and to a well-earned national pride in doing the right thing, even at the risk of one's own death.

AIDS. Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the first report of AIDS/HIV in the U.S. The PBS Newshour aired a segment titled AIDS at 30: Who's at Greatest Risk of Infection Now?i The report is a must-see to understand how far we've come, and what we have yet to accomplish in eliminating this global scourge. You can view the video or read the transcript here.

VIKINGS. Today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Viking Age. On this day in the year 793, "Vikings destroyed the abbey on Lindisfarne, a center of learning famous across the continent .... Scandinavian (Norse) Vikings explored Europe by its oceans and rivers through trade and warfare. The Vikings also reached Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Anatolia. There is evidence to support the Vinland legend that Vikings reached farther south to the North American continent." Explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates, Vikings penetrated most of Europe and heavily influenced cultures from Ireland to Russia (see map below, click to enlarge.)

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