Did you hear the one about the joke researchers who walked into the dream lab? Don't worry, most people haven't.
Like anything else, jokes are subject to scientific scrutiny. Psychologists and other thinkers-at-large have formally studied the words and scenarios that make us chuckle for hundreds of years, trying to understand why we tell jokes, what makes them funny, what shapes our senses of humor and other issues related to being hilarious.
While Sigmund Freud may be best known for putting dreams on a pedestal, the psychiatric forefather also took a stab at making sense of the jocular. He of the big beard and tiny spectacles saw jokes and dreams as two sides of the same psychological coin. In his 1905 book, "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious," Freud explained both phenomena as rooted in the same unconscious desires.
Modern-day humor researchers haven't exactly embraced Freud's jokes-as-dreams framework. But, in drawing parallels between the formation of dreams and jokes, Freud expressed ideas about the purpose and essence of making a funny that jibe with today's prevailing joke theories.
"I'd say [Freud's] theory received mixed support but it no longer plays a role in contemporary humor research and theory," said Rod Martin, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. "I think this is a pity, because some of his ideas were quite insightful."
Freud understood dreams as a form of wish fulfillment. Never one to dismiss nighttime narratives as meaningless, he saw the people, things and themes that surface during REM-mentation as symbolic of deep-seated wants and woes. He both examined how dreams represent unconscious desires and, conversely, how suppressed thoughts manifest in dreams, a process he called "dream-work."
In dreams, we gain a safe space to express unsavory thoughts that the unconscious mind would otherwise keep bottled up. "Unsavory" typically means repressed sexual or aggressive desires — maybe you want to axe your baby bro or maybe you want to play "Flowers in the Attic" with him. So, these unsavory thoughts stay outside conscious awareness until they show up in dreams in a more palatable, often symbolic form. As Freud wrote in "The Interpretation of Dreams," "The task of dream-formation is above all to overcome the inhibition from the censorship."
And here's where jokes come in. Freud said he partially took on jokes as a "new problem" because he believed that ignorant people would react to dream interpretation as though they were assessing a joke.
"Jokes, then, like dreams, represent a safe way of expressing unconscious instincts and wishes without undoing the fabric of civilization,” wrote sociologist Stephen LeDrew in a 2009 paper published in the online journal PsyArt. So, like dream-work, joke-work does two things simultaneously: It distorts repressed thoughts and puts them in front of the conscious mind (wish fulfillment).
To yield LOLs and hahahas, Freud felt that jokes needed to be both controversial and clever. "A key Freudian idea," said Martin," is that, to be successful, a joke needs to have both a "libidinal" component (ie, sex or aggression) and a "joke-work" element (the cognitive component, such as a pun or other type of word-play)." Alone, either element might make a joke enjoyable enough, maybe even worthy of a single "ha," but nothing of the ROTFL-lolzzz-STOPPPP-I'm-gonna-pee variety. Together, smart + taboo = guaranteed thigh-slapper.
Not all repressed wishes get distorted in the same way. The mind twists and tones down our NC-17 thoughts via several unconscious processes, which are responsible for generating both dreams and jokes. One such process is condensation, which can manifest in a few ways. In a dream, several cringe-worthy thoughts might get fused into a single entity that represents all of them. So, four real people, connected by some unifying element, might appear in a dream as one, unrecognizable composite. In jokes, condensation gives rise to double entendres and other types of wordplay. Here's an example from Martin's book, where getting the joke hinges on understanding that one word (hardest) has two meanings (erection, difficulty): "One bachelor asked another, "How did you like your stay at the nudist camp?" "Well," he answered, "It was okay after a while. The first three days were the hardest."
Despite the similarities he noted between jokes and dreams, Freud did acknowledge a clear and important difference between the two. A dream, he wrote, is a "completely asocial mental product," whereas a joke is "the most social of all the mental functions that aim at a yield of pleasure." In other words, a joke must be told to someone, with the intention of eliciting laughter, which means that jokes are subject to standards that dreams need not meet. So, in joke-work, the unconscious mind can't distort thoughts beyond the point of comprehensibility, whereas in dreams, thoughts can be condensed into symbols beyond obvious recognition.
Unsurprisingly, Freud's understanding of humor is unmistakably Freudian. His signature brand of psyche-probing started to lose traction in the mid-20th century, when psychology shifted towards cognitive theories, which conform to the scientific method better than psychoanalysis does. Among other issues, Freud's theories aren't falsifiable, meaning it's impossible to think of arguments that could refute them. In science, an idea can't be right unless it could theoretically be proven wrong. But, despite the failure of Freud's more egregious ideas, and the general shift away from subconscious deep-dives, it's not certain he fumbled on all counts.
"Freud has often been ridiculed for his idea that sex and aggression are the most important motives underlying all human activity," said Martin, "However, this idea is very compatible with current evolutionary psychology, which emphasizes the fundamental importance of reproduction (sex) and competition (aggression) in human behavior."
The same can be said for Freud's work on jokes, according to Martin. Today, the prevailing theory of joke science is incongruity. The incongruity theory says humor happens when a joke gives rise to imcompatible interpretations of a situation or event at the same time, "causing the mind to oscillate back and forth between them." A simple example of incongruity? A horrible (or great) pun, a la "I wondered why the fist was getting bigger. Then it hit me." Ba-dum.
Martin sees Freud's joke-work techniques as different ways to trigger incongruity. "Many of the examples of joke-work that Freud lists," he said, "fit well with the way current theorists talk about incongruity, although they never give Freud any credit."
Overall, Martin thinks Freud's ideas about joke-work are still with us today, although "most humor theorists and researchers are not even aware of this."