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Monday, June 2, 2014

The Dopamine Diaries

Lachen mit Mir und Meinem Freund: Schadenfreude

Jokes, jests, quips and paradoxical situations are the ingredients which cause us to laugh. The biology/physiology which underpins laughter is the release of dopamine. This is one of the human body's feel good drugs out a pharmacopoeia of feel good drugs. In a crisis, a traumatic position or a moment of acute stress, the brain becomes awash in dopamine which decreases the anxiety level.

Professor Jim Davies, in his book “Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe”, lays out what he generally considers to be the bedrock of what constitutes a joke, which in turn invokes a laugh. According to Jim Davies, a joke must have one or more of the following elements to qualify as laughter producing joke: expectancy, familiarity and sympathy.

In other words, the components of a joke need to be recognized by the one experiencing the joke. Also, the situational modus (logical and systematic progression), of a joke should be within certain parameters of recognition. Lastly, the recipient of a joke should be invested emotionally in the person or thing involved in the joke; either culturally or socially. If these criteria are met, then the likelihood of the joke being successful is enhanced. Take for instance, the classic joke set up of 3 different people who in a bar and are all confronted with a similar circumstance. Here's an example of just such a joke:

An octopus walks into a bar and sees a band playing in the corner, composed of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. The octopus walks up and says “I’m the best musician in the world. I can play any instrument you like”. So the English guy goes “Alright then. Play this” and hands him a guitar. The octopus plays it better than Jimi Hendrix, better than Eric Clapton, better than anyone and hands him back the guitar. The Irishman says “Okay, how about this?” and shows him to the piano. The octopus sits down and plays it like never before – Better than Liberace and Elton John. The best pianist ever. Finally, a Scotsman says “Alright, let’s see ya play this then” and hands him a set of bagpipes. The octopus looks at them and fumbles with them. Couple more minutes and he’s still struggling and there’s no sound coming out. Couple more minutes go by and still nothing so the Scotsman says “So, can you not play it then?” And the octopus says “Play it? I’m gonna fuck her when I get her pajamas off”

All the elements are embedded in this joke in order for it to induce at least a snicker of laughter. Again, according to Jim Davies, this is the classic formula on which to base the success of a joke.

However, a seemingly omitted ingredient for inducing laughter is the innate voyeuristic joy of the distress which befalls another person. The English language has adopted the German word for this situation: schadenfreude. In the realm of jokes and laughter one has to look no further than physical humor in the form of pratfalls and practical jokes. The silent film industry of the early 20th century was filled with these comedic geniuses like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, the Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields to name but a few.

In these performances the viewer passively watches the impending misfortune of the comic and then laughs either with a sigh of relief that it didn't befall the viewer or in an unconscious catharsis as the stress level is abated. Regardless, at the Moment Suprême the viewer has opened up the flood gates to an influx of dopamine. Naturally, this isn't only reserved to watching films or stage performances; it can also be literary. A few days ago I had a marvelous release of dopamine at the expense of a former US president.

Normally, when I receive spam-email blasts from political parties I delete them without impunity. Today was different. This spam-mail was from George Bush Sr. and the GOP pandering for donations. Everyday I am bombarded with the grubby, contracted, gnarled digital hands of politicians reaching into the void as they beg for money.

In other words, to quote one of my favorite snowclones; “the king is dead; long live the king.” With the giddy curiosity of a ravenous polecat, I read the opening sentence and was immediately overtaken with schadenfreude. The first remark, meant to establish a rapport with me, the reader, went like this; I don’t know what your guilty pleasures are in life, but one of mine is socks.”

Intrigued as I was, I pressed on to read more. Bush went on to flesh out what he meant by such an psychologically eerie and revealing statement: “I’m a self-proclaimed sock man. The louder, the brighter, the crazier the pattern -- the better! It’s usually the first thing people notice I’m wearing whenever I’m out in public and that’s the way I like it.”

Was I witnessing in black and white the neurological dismantling of a once proud and intellectual man? This is where my chance a more clinical observation came to a halt. The rest of the email prattle on about how the liberals and the conservatives in the sandbox can't get along and play fair. The blanks aren't worth filling in for any clarity. And then it happened; an unexpected jolt of dopamine at the conclusion of the email: “Samuel Johnson, thank you for your friendship over the years. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

With those words he has promised me more schadenfreude as he will be sending me more details about the fetishes he cultivates in retirement. 

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