Why Is A Christmas Story — The Musical — So Hilarious? Inside Jokes, The Mating Mind and Mental Spaces We’d Rather Not Explore

“You don’t mean to say that this charming, clever young lady has been so foolish as to accept you?”
Lord Caversham to Lord Goring in Oscar Wilde’s, An Ideal Husband

“Evolution is an examination with two papers. To succeed demands a pass in both.”
Steve Jones, Darwin’s Ghost (p. 76)

The Arts Club of Vancouver’s performance of A Christmas Story—The Musical had me in stiches. But why?

A Christmas Story—The Musical

Before reading on, I suggest you put this post aside and come back to it once you have answered the question yourself: What makes this musical (or film) so funny? To narrow it down, I suggest you focus on three key songs: Ralphie to the Rescue, Genius on Cleveland Street and A Major Award. Here’s the trailer. The soundtrack is available on iTunes.

It isn’t easy to explain why we like certain things. If you’ve read the excruciatingly detailed Inside Jokes, by Hurley, Dennett & Adams, which I highly recommend, you know that explaining mirth, in particular, is a non-trivial endeavour. Most accounts of humor focus on external aspects of the humorous situation without doing justice to the mystery of why we should find anything funny in the first place. Theories of mirth tend to consider only a very limited number of examples. Their authors typically fail to pursue the large number of instances that might not quite fit their theory. A good theory of mirth needs to be inscribed in a broad theory of mind, one that explains affect (motivation, emotions, attitudes and moods) and sense making. It also must explicitly explain it in evolutionary and “design-based” terms.

Hurley, Dennett & Adams’s theory (henceforth, “HDA“) is a very illuminating attempt to address all these requirements, which means they link the why of humor to its how. The theory is surprisingly à propos, given one of the main concerns of this blog, which is to psychologically inform the pursuit of excellence!

In this post, I will briefly summarize Inside Jokes and then extend it (in the spirit of Imre Lakatos) to help account for why I found The Musical so funny. This will lead me to reflect on the two themes of male fantasy that are at the heart of my enjoyment of this seasonal musical. I will wrap up my preliminary “answers” with a nod to sexual selection.

Mirth Motivates Thinking: The HDA Theory of Humor

According to the HDA theory, mirth—the feeling of finding something funny—is a pleasant mental state that occurs, more or less suddenly and intensely, upon discovering that one has misinterpreted a situation. Following, Gilles Fauconnier and Armen Khederlarian, HDA posits that in making sense of situations, the human mind parsimoniously populates mental spaces with more or less active information. They vaguely refer to a process of spreading activation in memory.

A major mental challenge the mind implicitly faces is to maintain a coherent mental model of the situation. Sense making requires mental work, such as making the right assumptions and inferences. However, the number of possible implications of a state are extremely large; its resources are limited, so the brain heuristically limits its information processing. Still, it must detect false inferences, false assumptions and false interpretations. Otherwise, it may make catastrophic errors. There are obvious selection pressures favouring minds that are better at catching errors. So evolution must have designed human brains to become better at doing so. But no sense-making machine can be error free.

Evolution’s way of promoting adaptive behavior, according to HDA, is to design brains such that they generate pleasure when they behave successfully, and pain when they fail. Hence, the phenomenology of orgasms and stubbed toes. (Compare the “law of effect.”)

According to HDA, mirth is pleasurable in order to reward the host for having (a) successfully detected that its mental space contains false information and then (b) constructed a mental model that coheres with known facts and prior knowledge. We go to the trouble, the mental work, of exploring the consequences of ours assumptions because this might bring the delight of mirth. (Mental masturbation.) HDA remind us, in this context, of Isaac Asimov who said “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny….”” In humor, pleasure arises in correcting the mental model. If there were no such pleasure, according to HDA, we would not be disposed to think deeply. Thus, HDA invoke Gopnik’s theory of “explanation [insight] as orgasm” (which is also discussed in Cognitive Productivity.)

The deliberate construction of humorous situations is an art of slyly leading the audience to commit (normally unconsciously) to false information and then to get them to realize their cognitive error. No joke is funny if it needs to be explained.

If HDA is correct, and there is more to it than I have summarized, then here we have an evolutionary explanation not just of mirth but of effortful cognition in general. What is more, this theory could potentially be harnessed to promote progressive problem solving, knowledge building and personal development, the end goals of Cognitive Productivity.[Limits]

Surprise and the Incongruous

A large part of the value of HDA comes from its attempt to explain surprise and the resolution of incongruity and incoherence, which are often involved in humour.[Surprise] Surprise they view as an emotion, one that is not merely triggered by the occurrence of unexpected events, but by becoming aware of information that contradicts something that was expected: more precisely, that invalidates a mental space.

The Musical does generate a lot of surprise and incongruity to be resolved. Mr. Parker (Ralphie’s father) en route to win the prize is helped by his wife. His “major award” is a lamp. Santa is portrayed as mean. Christmas dinner is held in a Chinese restaurant. A duck is presented and its head unexpectedly chopped off. Two boys pop out from behind furniture when we unconsciously expected there to be no one there. Subsequently, I was actively expecting another character to emerge, but concluded none would, I was mirthfully surprised when it turned out that Ralphie’s brother, Randy, was hiding underneath the sink. In HDA there is a critical difference between simply not expecting something, and assuming something that turns out to be false. According to HDA, for each of the foregoing events audience members (who found them funny, and there was plenty of laughter) would generate at least some false information (expectations) in their mental spaces, through a process of spreading largely unconscious activation. HDA seems to do well at explaining all of the above.[Beyond Surprise]

The Unpredicted Hilariousness of Recurrent Male Fantasy

I guess this often happens, the success of a novel or a play or a movie, it’s like a mirror turned onto the audience. The fact that it resonates so much for us reveals something about how our minds work.
Julia Galef, RSP 149: Susan Gelman on, “How essentialism shapes our thinking”

What struck me the most about my experience of The Musical was that it made me laugh so long and hard despite the fact that I had seen the film several times. Prima facie, this does not jive very well with HDA. For I consciously anticipated the unfolding events that made me laugh the most.

There are six entries under “Repetition” in the index of the hard cover version of Inside Jokes. HDA, the authors, clearly gave some thought to the matter. However, their explicit account of repetition is rather unsatisfactory. They argue that mirth is a feeling very similar to other forms of pleasure (true). The mind, they claim, need not and is not designed to perfectly (consciously) determine the cause of pleasure (also true). It suffices for the lower-level, emotional, limbic affective processes to reward and punish the appropriate cognitive behaviors. While they do not refer to it, there is plenty of research in the (Skinnerian) tradition of operant conditioning that corroborates their claim. Parents, teachers and even employers have long surreptitiously manipulated the behavior of others via the laws of effect. [The Pudding]

HDA would thus explain my dying in my seat laughing by recategorizing my experience as something akin to but different from mirth. This maneuver is not unacceptable. It would be an essentialist fallacy[Essentialism] to expect a theory of mirth to deal with all superficially similar cases. Mirth is a polymorphous category, one that doesn’t cut nature at its joints. If HDA were to read this post, they might point, for instance, to the fact that I laughed most vigorously, and with emotions not merely pleasure, during the taboo fantasy themes of The Musical. I too point in this direction. However, I think HDA can do a better job at dealing with repetition than explicitly communicated in Inside Jokes.

Fantasy Themes

Daydreaming is not a sidebar.
Ron Burnett, personal communication.

Fantasy is a form of play. Play may seem superfluous, but it is both purposive and the result of mechanisms that have been selected by evolution.[Play] Humans fantasize, not only to escape, but often in order to assess motivators, prepare themselves to address motivators (e.g., by exploring possibilities), indulge dangerous motivators and to kindle important motivators that might otherwise lie fallow.

The final explanation of systematic behavioral tendencies, including cognitive behaviors, must connect them with mental mechanisms that promote (or at least previously promoted) the perpetuity of one’s genes. The two male fantasy themes in A Christmas Story illustrate this well.

Ralphie to the Rescue

In Ralphie to the Rescue, 9-year old Ralphie fantasizes of, with the help of his Red Ryder BB Gun, bravely saving his teacher, classmates, family and friends from pirates and bullies.

This type of fantasy can easily be accounted for both in terms of natural selection and sexual selection (the latter being a subset of the former). This type of fantasy is common amongst boys and young men. It might facilitate overt displays of arms and prowess that would stave off competition, help form alliances and facilitate access to females. Children are too young for sexual selection, but fantasy and play nevertheless are accounted for by natural and sexual selection.[The Leg]

One evening in the spring of 1989, in a class on Personality, the professor asked us all to anonymously pen a recent fantasy and bring the paper to him after class. My 21-year old intellectual brain documented one of its recent fantasies. I overcame a villain who threatened the members of a biopsychology lab for which I worked at the time (not too different a fantasy from Ralphie’s (blush!)). Such “male” fantasies may have evolved due to natural and sexual selection, but sexual selection also operates, however indirectly, towards keeping such fantasies private. To my consternation, during the next class, the prof selected a few gems to read. Mine was one of the unlucky few. The young women sitting behind me laughed and mocked the author of this “puerile” fantasy.[Disclosures] I nearly died. (But here I am nearly 30 years later blogging about it!)

I think that one of the reasons I laughed so long and hard at Ralphie to the Rescue is that I viscerally felt it touching a primordial, ingrained theme and imperative, one that is taboo. More on that below. More generally, perhaps effective art operates by triggering mental mechanisms that evolved in response to universal themes.[Universals]

Ralphie to the Rescue was amusing, but Genius on Cleveland Street is hysterically funny.

Genius on Cleveland Street Wins a Major Award

In The Genius on Cleveland Street Ralphie’s dad, Mr. Parker, fantasizes out loud about winning an award for solving a crossword puzzle, something that would, he feels, publicly demonstrate his latent intellectual prowess. Unlike some other theatrical characters who venture into the outer (inner) space of grandiosity and vanity — Molière’s Mr. Jourdain (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) comes to mind — Mr. Parker has many endearing attributes. He’s a simple, loving, well-meaning father in the golden age of America — an underdog hounded by the neighbor’s dog, eager to head underground or under car to solve his family’s technical problems and boost his intellectual ego. Mrs. Parker graciously hints at the answers to the crossword puzzle and even seems to understand the furnace better than he does. The Musical is intended for children too, so it unfailingly leads one to furnish one’s “mental space” with a model of Mr. Parker as a likeable simpleton who is deluded by his intellectual prowess. The incongruity is palpable.

Mr. Parker behaves consistently with his character, so there’s no “aha” experience that is protypical of HDA humor, particularly on repeated experiencing. One thing that makes the character funny is just how far he deviates from the norm. Raphie’s fantasies are amusing, but in line with what you would expect a boy or even a young man to have. In contrast it is difficult to imagine an adult who could be so firmly deluded as Mr. Parker. Still, with a bit of work the HDA theory can accommodate the funniness of Mr. Parker. Our mental model of the human potential for vanity is being stretched. Things that we thought were impossible lay bare before us, clearly (though [for now] fictionally) possible. Have you ever witnessed children at a science museum witnessing carefully crafted mind-stretching demonstrations? Often they’ll laugh as they observe what they thought was impossible. Perhaps this scientific humor functions in a similar way, where the demonstrators venture not merely into the unexpected but indirectly activate the contrary information that previously lay dormant in the children’s mental spaces. They get the children to realize some of the active information in their mental space was wrong.

Mr. Parker, however, doesn’t merely reveal as possible that which we thought was impossible. Parker primes in us knowledge of ourselves that most of us would simply rather not admit into our mental spaces, particularly not in public. Most knowledge workers, I assume, take at least some pride in their intellectual abilities and products.

We are motivated not only to become smarter, but to be known as smart. Yet we (and I must apologize for mentioning that Canadians are known for this) value humility and dislike rodomontade and bombast.[Selye] We viscerally agree with Peter Gabriel’s denunciation of self-aggrandizement, Big Time, while also finding it amusing yet not hilarious; but we would not be surprised to find it on a gym’s playlist, i.e., as a motivator…

So, the ‘hard core’ of HDA might be saved with some auxiliary explanations. Another vector of humor is to to get the audience to activate information about themselves that is incompatible with a character (“Parker’s is pretty dumb and vain”), and then lead them to realize that the character is very similar to themselves. The process probably works best by evoking empathy (loving, beleaguered Parker) and identification (Parker, family man experiencing Christmas the old fashion way).[Mirrors]

A Christmas Story leaves nothing to chance in its portrayal of vanity and its quest to elicit identification. The Genius on Cleveland Street goes on for nearly eight minutes, while a A Major Award is 3½ minutes. The portrait is explicit, detailed and painted with vivid, concrete imagery: references to trophies, envelopes, statues, houses, bowling alleys and stamps of recognition. And of course they apply music, gesture, mime and dance.

A Christmas Story primes a mental space of Mr. Parker the buffoon, too much the buffoon to be like us. Yet these images also prime our own self-knowledge which contradicts the idea that we are different from him. HDA can account for the repeated experience of such mirth because we will go on to repress this knowledge. Why will we continue? Because we can’t give up on vanity (for reasons explained in the next section), we’re not very good at acceptance (cf. Buddhism and acceptance and commitment therapy), drawing the implications of the mating mind requires too much mental effort (many can’t even cope with the simpler concept of natural selection), and social pressures that ineluctably will continue to keep this aspect of ourselves taboo (Selye’s quest, mentioned below, was doomed to fail).

The Mating Mind and Vanity

Now here’s why I alluded to sexual selection as an explanation for Mr. Parker’s fantasies and its resonance in the audience. It has to do with Geoffrey Miller’s theory of the evolution of intelligence to which I’ve alluded several times on this blog. Miller sets out to explain why humans spend so much energy on cognitive matters. Why are we so smart and creative, and motivated to be that way? One would think that this is because intelligence confers a natural selective advantage. However, evolution is extremely parsimonious. Other species have nowhere near our cognitive capacities.

Miller’s answer to his question is that, for whatever reasons, our ancestors (particularly females) developed a tendency to prefer mates who showed signs of intelligence. When this bias was first introduced, our ancestors had nothing like our brain capacity. But once it was introduced, it gradually and inexorably led the species to develop more adept brains which eventually provided a selective advantage. In other words, Miller appeals to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, which he convincingly argues is Darwin’s most brilliant insight.

Abraham Maslow did not put love, belonging and esteem at the top of his hierarchy of human needs. But, fundamentally, the most important genetic driver is the perpetuity of one’s genes, which (normally) means the genes’ host must convince a mate to copulate. This applies to the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy (love/esteem). However, mating decisions are based on all kinds of mental characteristics. The apex of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization, involves mental dispositions emphasized by Miller in The Mating Mind as criteria for sexual selection, such as morality, creativity and problem solving. These characteristics normally need to be displayed behaviorally by someone before a potential mate selects him or her. Hence the motivator to display oneself as smart, loyal, etc. In other words, displaying attributes of the top of the hierarchy is our genes’ ticket to live on to fight in another generation.

Genius on Cleveland Street and A Major Award tap into deeply rooted propensities of self-presentation of which practically no audience member is completely unaware.

Keeping it Simple – John Cleese on Taboo

I suspect there’s a bit of a danger that within this florid blog post the key idea I want to convey may be hard to discern.[Aside on Reading]

In a nutshell, I wanted to illustrate HDA, suggest it is better positioned to handle repeated mirth than its authors allow, and suggest areas of improvement.

HDA minimizes taboo thinking. For example, they write

Minsky assumed his theory worked not alone but in conjunction with Freud’s taboo-censors to provide for all humor. For Minsky, humor always includes a pinch of childlike spice: the delight in being naughty and getting away with it. While we agree that this aspect enhances much humor, we claim that it is not a crucial ingredient

As a result, HDA, by their own admittance, can’t deal with some of the best repeated humour as mirth. So, they can’t fully explain why classics of farce like A Christmas Story , Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda can be very funny, again and again. What is worse, they also can’t really deal with the mirth elicited by the funniest segments the first time they are experienced.

Taboo, isn’t ancillary to mirth, it is essential to much of it, at least in farce, according to one of its greatest living masters, John Cleese:

CLEESE: […] that’s the basis of all farce, somebody keeping something that’s sort of taboo, who then spends the rest of the play trying to cover it up. (Ivie, 2011)

Further, in HDA, embarrassment potentiates mirth only if the other person is the butt of the joke.

You have no empathy for these characters-they are not your friends, and you do not feel their embarrassments, fears, or losses. This emotional disconnection is exactly why you can laugh at their antics and experiences-their mistakes do not matter to you. (HDA, chapter 9)

This is sometimes at least superficially the case. In this essay, however, I have tried to show that taboo also operates in a self-referential way, at least when the audience is in a sufficiently reflective frame of mind. Because exploring mental space is at the theoretical core of HDA, it’s quite important for it to account for such reflective humor.

HDA can deal with taboo humor if we develop a theory of how minds construct and manage mental spaces containing taboo information, particularly as it reflects on themselves. (See the footnotes below for some other ways in which HDA needs some work.[Another Avenue])

A Funny Transfer Problem

How can one, after attending this product and depicter of sexual selection, A Christmas Story, ever take pride again in winning a “major award”, without seeing Mr. Parker in his mental mirror? Quite easily. That is partly due to the transfer problems addressed by Cognitive Productivity, but mainly due to the reasons listed above. We avoid seeing ourselves this way until it is forced upon us (e.g., by a musical that “leaves nothing to chance in its portrayal of vanity and its quest to elicit identification”). Hence we can enjoy A Christmas Story again next year. Hopefully, by then our understanding of the mechanisms from which mirth emerges will have improved.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to my weightlifting.


The Genius on My Cul-de-sac


(To be continued)

Beaudoin, L. P. (1990). A computational investigation of the evolution of vision (unpublished Honours thesis) University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada.

Beaudoin, L. P. (2015), Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. BC: CogZest.

Beaudoin, L. P. (2014a, July). A design-based approach to sleep-onset and insomnia: super-somnolent mentation, the cognitive shuffle and serial diverse imagining. Paper presented at the 2014 Cognitive Science Society Annual Conference’s workshop on “Computational Modeling of Cognition-Emotion Interactions: Relevance to Mechanisms of Affective Disorders and Therapeutic Action”, Québec, Canada. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/267337398_A_design-based_approach_to_sleep-onset_and_insomnia_super-somnolent_mentation_the_cognitive_shuffle_and_serial_diverse_imagining

Beaudoin, L. P. (2015). The possibility of super-somnolent mentation: A new information-processing approach to sleep-onset acceleration and insomnia exemplified by serial diverse imagining. Cognitive Productivity Research Project, Simon Fraser University. http://summit.sfu.ca/item/12143 (First published in 2013).

Brel, J., Diener, J., Calon, J.C., Mestral, A., Rauber, F. (1968). L’Homme de la Mancha. Barclay.

Brown, Stuart, & Vaughan, C. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Cervantes, …

Wasserman, Man of the Mancha.

Donald, M. (2001). A mind so rare: The evolution of human consciousness. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The way we think. Basic Books.

Gabriel, P. Big Time.

Galef, J. (2015, December). Susan Gelman on “How essentialism shapes our thinking.” New York, NY: New York City Skeptics. Retrieved from http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs-149-susan-gelman-on-how-essentialism-shapes-our-thinking.html

Hurley, M. M., Dennett, D. C., & Adams, R. B. (2011). Inside jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind.. Retried from Apple’s iBookstore. [I suspect that this book was updated after 2011 on iTunes but Apple does not provide this information beyond the publisher’ copyright page which in this case seems to be incorrect. In contrast, to Ruboss’s credit, Leanpub’s books have a last revised date.]

Ivie, D. (2014, November 11). John Cleese and the Key to Comedy. Retrieved December 21, 2015, from http://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/john-cleese-so-anyway

Jones, S. (2000). Darwin’s ghost: The origin of the species updated. Random House.

Lakatos, I., Worrall, J., & Zahar, E. (1976). Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery. Cambridge University Press.

Lakatos, I. (1980). The methodology of scientific research programmes: Philosophical papers. (Vol. 1). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive structure of emotions. Cambridge, UK Cambridge University Press.

Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. [Kindle edition.] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Ryle, G. (1949). The concept of mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Selye, H. (1974). Stress Without Distress. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart.

Simon, J. (1972, July 10). The unreachable low. New York Magazine, p. 61.

Sloman, A. (2009b). Architecture-based motivation vs reward-based motivation. Retrieved from: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/.


These are not in the right order yet.

Designer stance. The designer stance involves reverse engineering the human mind. See Aaron Sloman’s The Design-Based Approach to the Study of Mind
(in humans, other animals, and machines), Including the Study of Behaviour Involving Mental Processes
, Part 2 of my first book, Cognitive Productivity or chapter 2 of my Ph.D. thesis.

Brief. You can try Tim Lewins’s review of Inside Jokes for the gist of it.

The Pudding is where the proof is. Short of convincing computer simulations, we must accept it on face that the sophisticated forms of reasoning involved in humor can indeed be self-regulated in this manner. However, in this essay I am restricting my criticism of HDA to footnotes and the penultimate section. The subject matter is far too complex to adequately criticize HDA here.

Essentialism. Coincidentally, last week, zestfully brilliant Julia Galef, quoted above, interviewed Susan Gelman about “How essentialism shapes our thinking” in Rationally Speaking Podcast episode #149.

Surprise. In the hardback (2011, p. 290) publication of Inside Jokes, surprise was deemed to always be involved in humor. In the iBooks version they weakened their claim. Ortony, Clore & Collins consider surprise to be a global modulator of the intensity of all emotions[OCC]. I suspect most cognitive theorists of emotion would agree. The other global modulators of emotion intensity that they list are arousal, sense of reality, and temporal proximity.

Beyond Surprise. HDA is not strictly a surprise or incongruity theory of humor. They more carefully explain how their theory relates to surprise than I can here.

The Leg. Given the thesis of this essay, it is fitting, and I think it is no coincidence, that Mr. Parker’s reward is a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg. (Molière was less subtle. Mr. Jourdain vanity led him to believe he could have an affair with a beautiful young woman—an impossible dream.). In the Arts Club version of A Christmas Story, Ralphie is, I’ve been told, played by a 14-year old (whereas the song speaks of a 9-year old). This is perhaps what gave them license to depict, in a hilarious moment, Ralphie suspended in some fantasy while staring at the leg, then being yanked out of it by his mum, “Ralphie!”. This, process of mirth, too, begs for a theoretical explanation.

Disclosures. Why did the prof not explain to the class that Psychology students need to show respect for personal disclosures?

Limits. I don’t disagree with HDA that pleasure and pain are some of evolution’s ways of promoting behavior in general and effortful thinking in particular. However, we are not completely dependent on such rewards. They might just be signals, not markers of purpose. Furthermore, we should not forget that Chomsky decidedly smote not only Skinner but hedonism. Further, as I argued in Cognitive Productivity with respect to HDA and others, it is incorrect (unparsimonious) to assume that pleasure is evolution’s only or even main way of shaping behavior. For example, “effectance” (the motivation to develop competence, a prime concern at CogZest) can be explained in terms of architecture-based motivation. Gilbert Ryle, was right that pleasure is often not felt in circumstances we describe as pleasurable or pleasant.

Play. Panksepp & Biven (2012) offer a theory of the phylogeny of play. See also the very readable account of play in Brown & Vaughan (2009).

Universals. Compare my earlier post Meta-painting & Science of the Human Mind: An Epistolary Response to Lam Wong’s 21 Elements. Claude Lamontagne is the cognitive scientist who, to my knowledge, has most extensively characterized the universality of perception and cognition, though mainly verbally. I pursued this theme in my honor’s thesis on the evolution of vision.

Selye. The Canadian inventor of stress theory, Hans Selye, also believed the desire for esteem is a biological fact; he argued, further, that we should unabashedly strive to earn our neighbor’s love.

Mirrors. It is always helpful in developing theories to consider related examples.

  1. Consider Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. It starts by portraying machinators in the third person plural and ends by revealing them to be “you” and “me”. Why is it so moving and yet not funny?
  2. Consider also Don Quixote in The Man of the Mancha. I can only speak to Jacques Brel’s version which is based on Dale Wasserman’s (Simon, 1972). Brel’s Don Quixote (D.Q.) is even more deluded than Mr. Parker, and also has very endearing qualities. Brel’s D.Q, unlike the eponymous character of the original novel, is not nearly the buffoon that Mr. Parker is. But both Brel’s D.Q. and Mr. Parker are lovable. Moreover, they both stretch our schemas. We are made to identify with both Brel’s D.Q. and Mr. Parker, but why is Brel’s D.Q. not as funny as Mr. Parker? Does this have something to do with the fact that Mr. Parker is more child like? How should we answer these questions in terms of HDA and my foregoing adaptation? Watching the The Man of the Mancha, the audience member has to construct multiple mental spaces. He is led to experience surprise and bewilderment, and to re-construct his mental spaces. D.Q.’s sidekick makes us laugh more than D.Q himself. The Knight of the Mirrors (Le Chevalier aux Mirroirs) elicits a particularly gripping, but mirthless, mental shuffling. In the cathartic end of The Man of the Mancha, the audience is led to abandon realism in favour of the impossible dream, while experiencing emotion as profound as any musical can elicit. To properly test HDA we would need to deal with these related cases in depth —a task worthy of a Ph.D. thesis.

Jacques Brel’s L’Homme de la Mancha is available On iTunes. La Quête (aka The Impossible Dream, The Quest).

Aside on Reading CogZest.com being mainly about meta-effectiveness: Using Knowledge, cognitive science and IT to become profoundly effective, it is relevant to ‘ask’: grabbing the thesis of a document is not the only point of reading now is it? I once interviewed a professor, who also won a major award, about his reading. He described most of it as ransacking: You grab whatever knowledge gems you need for your project and move on. (You don’t need to read the whole book!)

Another Avenue. Another obvious avenue to explore repeated mirth is that one’s understanding can change between viewings, over and beyond protecting one’s self-image. This can operate in many different ways in the HDA framework.

Revision History

2015-12-22 Several minor changes.


Comments welcome. A version of this essay, with additional figures to illustrate the construction of mental spaces, may appear in my next Leanpub book, Discontinuities: Reflections on Neglected Problems in Cognitive Science.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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