Saturday, September 10, 2011

Humour and the mentally unstable

Humour is one of the necessities of life - nobody should be without it. The ability to see things as funny, and enjoy the fact, is one of the aspects of our human nature and separates us from the animal kingdom.

There are many different kinds of humour. I'd like to focus on one type that I enjoy a lot - the mind-bending, subtle, philosophical kind which is exemplified by people like Douglas Adams in his Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy series.

This style of humour begins by posing a situation which is fictional, while still sufficiently similar to reality to successfully interest the reader. It then goes on to describe events which naturally follow from the situation - with a twist. They follow not by the rules that govern our universe but by a set of rules made up by the author, similar to ours but different in several subtle but important ways. The excellent humour comes from the contrast of the two sets of rules and their attendant consequences. Since the rules are similar the train of events described remains within the bounds of the reader's imagination. But at every twist in the plot the outcome, governed by this artificial set of rules, is at the same time unexpected and yet perfectly logical.

For a person like myself, mentally stable and with a good grasp of the way the world and its human population work, this style of humour is just that - a brilliantly executed joke. Since it appeals to a limited number of people (those with high levels of analytical thinking skills) it has the added advantage that it's a good pointer to a kindred spirit - anyone I come across who is also a fan of Douglas Adams will probably be the kind of person whose brain operates similarly to mine.

Note the inclusion of the word "probably", because there is another group of people who like this kind of humour - and here we see its dangerous side. People who are already mentally unstable, or have trouble either understanding or accepting the universal rules of human behaviour, voraciously read and absorb this kind of fiction, and then subconsciously try to live their lives according to its rules, rather than the real ones. Perhaps they genuinely can't tell the difference between the two - if they don't fully understand the world they live in they obviously lack the skill of philosophical analysis, which would support that theory. Or perhaps they are in denial about their responsibilities under the real rules of the universe, and deliberately try to get around them by looking for an alternative.

Either way, the outcome is mostly harmful. The rules as presented by Douglas Adams are internally inconsistent, which is used in the books as an additional point of humour. But when used as a basis for life inconsistency can cause a range of mental illnesses - from mild disillusionment and misanthropy to suicidal tendencies. Selfishness is also a common result, as it is a trait shared by all the characters in the books. Incidentally, from an interview with Douglas Adams included in a BBC recording of the radio version of the books it's clear that he himself was subject to that same mental instability, brought on by rejection or misunderstanding of the universal rules of human behaviour.

Unfortunately there is no simple metric for mental stability which can be used as a simple litmus test to assess the suitability of a person to unstable humour. However, anyone who glances at this post and immediately starts to make caveats or corrections to it is most likely the right sort - and anyone who says "Yeah whatever" or "Too long, didn't read" is most likely not.