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Why do we find it funny when someone falls down?
—William B. Keith, Houston
William F. Fry, a psychiatrist and laughter researcher at Stanford University, explains:
EVERY HUMAN develops a sense of humor, and everyone’s taste is slightly different. But certain fundamental aspects of humor help explain why a misstep may elicit laughter.
The first requirement is the “play frame,” which puts a real-life event in a nonserious context and allows for an atypical psychological reaction. Play frames explain why most people will not find it comical if someone falls from a 10-story building and dies: in this instance, the falling person’s distress hinders the establishment of the nonserious context. But if a woman casually walking down the street trips and flails hopelessly as she stumbles to the ground, the play frame may be established, and an observer may find the event amusing.
Another crucial characteristic is incongruity, which can be seen in the improbable or inconsistent relation between the “punch line” and the “body” of a joke or experience. Falls are incongruent in the normal course of life in that they are unexpected. So despite our innate empathetic reaction—you poor fellow!—our incongruity instinct may be more powerful. Provided that the fall event establishes a play frame, mirth will likely ensue.
Play frames and incongruity are psychological concepts; only recently has neurobiology caught up with them. In the early 1990s the discovery of mirror neurons led to a new way to understand the incongruity aspect of humor. When we fall down, we thrash about as we reach out to catch ourselves. Neurons in our brain control these movements. But when we observe another person stumbling, some of our own neurons fire as if we were the person doing the flailing—these mirror neurons are duplicating the patterns of activity in the falling person’s brain. My hypothesis regarding the relevance of this mechanism for humor behavior is that the observer’s brain is “tickled” by that neurological “ghost.” The observer experiences an unconscious stimulation from that ghost, reinforcing the incongruity perception.