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The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh and Movies Make Us Cry

Jim Davies

Our old brain reacts intuitively. The new brain thinks more rationally, step by step. The old brain senses that something is immoral, then we consult our new brain to explain why.

Watching crime stories on TV makes us think that crime is getting worse. People who don't watch TV are more accurate judges of risk.

Finding Nemo an animated film about a clownfish searching for his lost son. It brings tears to the eyes of viewers, who are watching a film, not real life, a film of filmed fish, not people, an animated film not real fish filmed, and the story is completely made up. Yet emotions engaged. Our ancestors saw very few things that weren't real - if you saw a person, he was there.

We learn from narratives, because our old brain react as though fictional characters were real people. White children who read stories with black characters have more empathy towards other race than even kids who interact with real black children.

Paintings we evaluate on first glance. Books we usually only read once. But we understand that often have to listen to a piece of music multiple times before decide we like it.

Conspiracy theories. We like puzzles to be solved, and CT supplies an easy solution. We have a bias toward facts that support what we already believe. Sense of superiority in figuring out something that baffles others. Evangelize to get others to agree, reducing discomfort from conflicting information. And repeated exposure brings conviction through familiarity.

CT different from just plain bad ideas like astrology. Important part of CT is belief that people are actively hiding evidence. So any evidence that conflicts with the CT is in itself evidence of the cover-up.

Perhaps computers will produce individualized works of art - paintings, stories or films tuned to what a person wants/needs at that particular moment. Will that "take away the magic"? John Keats lamented that Isaac Newton's expts with light had "unwoven the rainbow" and ruined the beauty of colour and light. But artists still use colour effectively today. Are cupcakes any less delicious because we know we like sweet things because sugar was rare and nutritious in our evolutionary environment.

People can hold both scientific and supernatural beliefs simultaneously. It is difficult to convince pre-industrial people that microscopic 'germs' cause diseases. But even in advanced societies, people look for a reason as well as a cause. So they accept that germs caused the disease, but witchcraft/god made it happen when it did.

Financially, computer games are already the dominant art form. People love to watch movies, but Americans spend even more time playing computer games. A 3 hour film is too long, but a game you can finish in 40 hours is too short. But this is just the start. In the future games are just going to get more interactive and more realistic. SF story about a group that try to put on a traditional stage play and have to keep asking the audience not to come on stage and try to take part.

Societies have idea of 'evil eye' curse on people who get above themselves. But poor people can't do it to rich people; only people in their peer group.

Fear makes us pay attention, and makes us believe things we otherwise might not. By default, we tend to believe most of the things we're told unless we have reason not to.

NZ wood pigeons have a fear of rubber snakes, even though there are no snakes in NZ, and never were. Monkeys can be raised without exposure to adult monkeys, and they are not afraid to handle snakes. But show them a film of another monkey reacting fearfully to a snake, and they learn to fear (even rubber snakes). Yet if you show them a monkey reacting fearfully to flowers, they don't copy that.

Denial: Go to doctor and he tells you you have a serious medical problem for which the cure is painful and slow. You meet a well-meaning friend (or a greedy charlatan) who tells you that doctor is wrong and that you can be cured by taking these (miracle) drugs. You now have a choice. You can believe the doctor, satisfying your rational needs to be sensible and listen to a qualified advisor. But you won't be satisfying your emotional need to be well. On the other hand, believing the friend/charlatan may worry your rational brain, but it allows you to believe that you can get well, which feels very good. Denial gives us the benefit of feeling good, without the hassle of actually having to suffer through the treatment.

We tend to disbelieve things that threaten our world view, even when those things are verifiable facts.

Our brain is good at denial: we want to believe that we are right, that we are better than others (driving, SOH), that we are smarter (even though less education and don't read any expert articles). These opinions are unfalsifiable - we hang on to them no matter how many times we crash the car or our prejudices are exposed as wrong.

We hope that juries reach a verdict by impartially looking at evidence. But in fact what happens is that jurors construct a personal story early on, and then look for evidence that supports that theory.

Most gambling addicts are addicted to pokie machines in particular, not to gambling in general. When the machine gives them 2 out of 3 prize-winning symbols, the gambler feels they are getting close, they are doing it nearly right, and success is just around the corner.

People feel more religious if they are lonely, fearful (being warned about risks of terrorism), or feeling financially or physically insecure. Religion is strongest where life is hard. It is more common in more dysfunctional states with lower standards of living, particularly relating to health care. Basically people who need reassurance.

Primitive tribes blame misfortune on spirits. When something goes wrong they make a sacrifice to the most likely spirit. If the problem doesn't go away, they conclude that they were talking to the wrong spirit, so they try another one. No matter how many times the sacrifice fails, their belief system provides a way to keep believing.

Christians do much the same. Get a job, oh, god is looking after me. Boss turns out to be a prick, oh, god is testing me. Anything that happens can be fitted into this framework. Even worse, it becomes evidence that the framework is correct.

Suggestion that our concepts of 'beauty' change as we become more familiar with the things we are evaluating. Being exposed to many examples of art or perhaps cars, makes us bored with conventional symmetry and come to prefer images or shapes that are more innovative or unusual.

People who play computer games tend to have faster reactions, better eyesight and better at planning and strategic thinking.

We have an innate belief in 'magical contagion' so we won't wear a jersey that belonged to a murderer, even after it is laundered. It even works forwards - get upset if told that an AIDS patient is to be the next occupant of a hospital bed we've just vacated. And we pay lots of money for trivial items that famous people have owned.

We like looking at porn or pics of beautiful people because part of our mind believes we are actually there. Up until very recently, that was always true - if your brain perceived an image of someone, they were there in front of you. Our brains simply haven't had time to catch up with the last 100-odd years of film.

Authenticity is important, but we struggle to understand why. Why is the 'original' of a painting more valuable than an identical replica? Why are moon rocks more valued than rocks from your back yard that are indistinguishable without an electron microscope? Why do even little children prefer a toy "that the queen once touched" to another one exactly the same? This same 'magical thinking' - idea that there is an invisible essence that touches one object and not the other.

We have a view of a "just world" where people get what they deserve. Stories tend to reinforce this belief - so the more TV you watch, the stronger you think that (and so are reluctant to give money to the 'needy' because you think it's their fault they are poor.

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