The importance of humour
(The teaching of creative thinking. Page 3)

My background is in psychology and in medicine where I worked on the complicated integrated systems of the body (respiration, circulation, kidneys, endocrine glands, nervous system) and had to develop an understanding of the behaviour of such self-organizing systems. In the course of my medical research, I became interested in the sort of thinking computers could not do: perceptual and creative. This is where an understanding of biological information processing came in useful in order to understand how neural networks could work as self-organizing information systems.

"I became interested in the sort of thinking that computers could not do: perceptual and creative."

In my book I am Right, You are Wrong, I claim that humour is by far the most significant behaviour of the human brain. I mean this very seriously indeed and I am not just being provocative. Humour is by far the best indicator of the type of information system that is operating in the brain - at least in perception.

In 1969 I wrote a book called The Mechanism of Mind in which I described how nerve networks in the brain allow incoming information to organize itself into patterns and sequences. These ideas of self-organizing information systems are now common in the design of what was called neural networks in the 1980's and is now called artificial intelligence, AI or machine learning.

 

Humour clearly indicates a self-organizing information system in which infor­mation arranges itself into patterns, sequences or tracks.

"Humour is by far the best indicator of the type of information system that is operating in the brain at least in perception"

In a passive system, information is recorded without changing it. An external "processor" then proceeds to work with this information: choosing, arranging, and organizing the information. In an active system, however, the information and the information surface interact; and as a result, the information arranges itself into sequences and patterns.

The simplest example of an active information system is rain falling onto a landscape and organizing itself into streams, rivers and catchment areas.

In a passive information system, what is logical in hindsight must be equally logical in foresight. But in an active (self-organizing) system, something may be logical and obvious in hindsight but inaccessible to logic in foresight. This arises from precisely the same asymmetry of patterns that is the basis of humour. In a passive information system, humour could not exist.

 

In any active, self-organizing information system, there is a necessity for creativity and for provocation. But because the whole of our intellectual culture is based on passive information systems, we do not see this necessity.

The very excellence of the brain is its ability to allow experience to organize itself in this way. Without such a system, life would be so slow as to be impossible. The brain forms these tracks so that we recognize a situation by proceeding along the track that has been triggered by what we see around us. This is the nature of perception. The tracks have wide "catchment" areas just as rivers have wide catchment areas. This means that even if the external signal is not exactly the same as the usual one, we will still recognize the situation.

 

The general effect is shown in Figure 1, which illustrates a pattern with a wide catchment area.

Figure 1

Because of the way the nerves interact with each other in the brain, the dominant track will suppress any alternative track for the moment. This gives rise to the situation illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2

We proceed along the main track. Access to the side track is impossible. If somehow, we eventually manage to get across to the side track, then in hindsight the connection back to the starting point is easy and obvious as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3
"We move 'laterally' from the main track to the side track. Once there, we link backwards to the starting point and find that the new idea is logical with hindsight."

It is precisely this asymmetry of patterns that gives rise to both humour and creativity. In a joke the teller suddenly takes the audience to the end of the side track, and immediately they see the connection with the starting point. Creativity is the same process. We move "laterally" from the main track to the side track. Once there, we see that the idea is perfectly logical in hindsight.

But how do we make that lateral move? That is where the deliberate techniques of lateral thinking come into use.

Page 3 of 9

(c) Copyright Edward de Bono Ltd, trading as de Bono