Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Think It's Funny?

I'm not sure what to make of an article that I read recently (Scientific American: MIND, 18:2 p12). Always considering that I had as good of sense of humor as the next man - I mean... well... I know it's in there somewhere. I don't laugh at odd things, uncontrollably, or at odd times... and that's got to count for something. I have noticed lately, however, that fewer and fewer things seem funny. But, if I listen to Jennifer Uekermann from the Ruhr-University of Bochum, Germany, I might have a brain like an alcoholic. Me, who hasn't even tasted the stuff in all of my fifty(mmmft) years! Ms Uekermann, apparently has developed a test for "sense of humor" and is going around giving it to people. Try as I might, I can't find a copy of the test anywhere - I mean - not in medical journals or psychological supply houses or even the Internet!

It's not that I feel slighted that she didn't give it to me; or, that I want to surreptitiously take it so no one would see if it turned out that I REALLY didn't have one. It's just that I thought it might be a good read. Probably at least as good as the "Garfield" book I got for Christmas; and, yes, I admit it, I've got some surgeons that I want to try it on.

She says: "[We know that] alcoholism is associated with cognitive deficits, which have been interpreted in terms of a specific vulnerability of the frontal lobes to the toxic effects of alcohol." Huh? What she means is that the area of the brain behind your eyebrows is the most easily effected by alcohol; which, as it happens, is the part mostly responsible for "social behavior" stuff like the processing of "affective" (feeling) stimuli. Being able to discern "incongruity," it turns out, is a big part of having a sense of humor; as is, being able to put yourself into another persons situation.

So, she gives people a whole bunch of tests, to make sure they have "Normal" IQ, "Executive Functions," and "happiness" levels; I guess, so it won't foul up her "jokes." Then she gives her "sense of humor" test to groups of "otherwise comparable" people, like: alcoholics and non-alcoholics, old and non-old, hit-in-the-head and non-hit-in-the-head. It turns out that 92 percent of non-drinkers could pick out the only listed multiple-choice "funny" punch line to a "joke"; but, only 68 percent of alcoholics could. Was that statistically significant? Well, WHO KNOWS, because Johathan Beard (poor soul), who wrote the review article, apparently didn't think it mattered enough to include the figures; and, unfortunately, neither did any of the other reviewers who wrote the synopses in any of the more "official" publications that I found on the Internet. There were other publications with articles stating that "old" people lost some of it; but, not as much as those who had been injured in the head (either young or old). And, in fact, keeping a sense of humor was an important factor in "successful aging." Man, I can attest to that.

But, I really wanted to see the test because it sounds kinda neat. Apparently the victim, I mean testee, has to discern body language or voice inflection to interpret which, of several choices of punch lines, makes the most sense or is funny. It's called "prosody." High-falutin' people say that prosody refers to the intonation, rhythm, and vocal stress in speech. Us normal-falutin' people just know that it's the vocal intonation which modifies the literal meaning of words and sentences - like when you use sarcasm. You know, saying: "yea, it's really big!" isn't the same as saying "yea, it's really big!" accompanied with rolling your eyes. And, most surgeons know this. That's why they are usually able to keep a whole set of nurses entertained during long operations on a barely clothed, unconscious patient. You see, us Pediatricians wouldn't even get it — everything is "big" to us. And, of course, I said most surgeons because neurosurgeons would just say "big? In relation to what?" Poor fellows, they don't have any sense of humor at all... ever! Now, if Ms. Uekermann is trying to find a group that would have some statistical relevance for her comparisons, she should come to me. I could tell her.

You see a surgeon, a pediatrician and a neurosurgeon went into a bar...

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