Aha! Is This the Link Between Humor and Learning?

karenListening to NPR during the twenty-three-minute commute from home to our campus is a treat, particularly when Fresh Air features one of Terry Gross’s insightful interviews.  Her ability to ask the perfect question, drawing the most revealing and interesting information from a parade of fascinating guests, is an art form in itself. Earlier this week, Gross spent time with Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker. Mankoff, a celebrated cartoonist in his own right, has penned a memoir full of reflections about what makes funny, well, funny. The book takes its title from Mankoff’s famous 1993 cartoon: How About Never—Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons.

Mankoff is the kind of guy you’d pay extra to be seated next to on a cross-country flight. He has studied the history of cartoon humor and has original theories about why genres of humor have been popular at different points in recent history. He has also dabbled in the neuroscience underlying our experience of humor. My ears perked up at this point:9780805095906_custom-9aee933ebaa626ebadb68979d596615e822422d8-s2-c85

I did this interesting study in which we did eye-tracking as people looked at … different types of cartoons. Sometimes the cartoons were just verbal cartoons and sometimes they had a visual element and we watched their eyes and the moment that they get the cartoon their pupil expands almost like it would for a flashbulb. So we can track the actual “get it moment.”

(Bonus anatomy lesson: Dilation of the pupils is a response to seeing something pleasurable, almost as though our eyes are trying to “drink in” the object of desire. Unconvinced? Check out the photo-shopped pupils of the models in any perfume or cosmetic ad. Those saucer-like pupils mean the model likes us, and the advertisers hope that we like her enough to buy her brand of scent or lipstick.)

robert_mankoffHumor is, after all, one of the original pleasures in learning that we identified as we started this blog. Pat Riley, one of the founders, and Dr. Kevin Felton have written here about the use of humor to enhance student pleasure in learning. We also appreciate meeting the “achievable challenge” as a source of student motivation and persistence. Perhaps Mankoff has identified the connection between the two. It seems that pleasure lives in both the moment  that we get the joke and the instant that we understand a concept…that magical moment when our brain snaps the pieces of a puzzle into place. A skillful humorist or cartoonist deliberately creates a moment of confusion so that we have the pleasure of resolving the discord—and we laugh. A skillful teacher leads us through a swamp of complex concepts…and we slap our foreheads and exclaim “Aha!”

We celebrate the “Eureka” moments in my class by borrowing a line from Gru, as voiced by Steve Carrell in Despicable Me:

Great for students and teachers alike. You can see excerpts from Terry Gross’s interview with Mankoff here. Better yet, listen to the entire show.


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