In a number of his books, Edward de Bono argues that humour is the most significant behaviour of the human mind. This is because humour, like lateral thinking, is a pattern-switching process. It works by causing what de Bono would call an "insight switchover" from a familiar pattern to a new, unexpected one. It is this moment of surprise and realization that triggers the laughter (and the new insights).
As I'll suggest in a later post, this pattern-switching characteristic of humour also has important implications for organizational dynamics. However, for now, I'll stick with its significnce in relation to the way in which new ideas are created and novelty emerges.
So how does humour work?
There are several ways of bringing the pattern-switching effect about; but the easiest one to explain is the format of the conventional joke. Regardless of the subject-matter, the 'set-up' leads the listener down a familiar, 'reasonable' pathway. When this pattern has been established (whether as part of a “one-liner” or a longer, “shaggy dog” story) the punch line suddenly shifts their attention 'laterally' into a different, hitherto unseen track.
Although it is a little dated now, an example used by de Bono in one of his early books makes the point well. It goes something like this:
Bob Hope said that he was very disappointed with his Christmas present this year. All he got was three golf clubs. And only two of those had swimming pools!
The pattern of thinking that is initially 'triggered' by the mention of golf clubs in the context of a Christmas present is one that includes woods, irons and putters. When swimming pools are mentioned, the expectancy established by this pattern is suddenly broken and a completely unexpected track opened up. Paradoxically (and crucially), this new meaning makes sense retrospectively (at least in the context of a wealthy individual like Bob Hope!), otherwise it wouldn’t have been funny.
De Bono argues that this ‘switchover’ process occurs naturally through such things as mistakes and misunderstanding as well as through humour. But waiting for such natural events to occur as the source of new insights is inefficient in relation to specific areas of focus. And it is for that reason that he invented the principles and practice of lateral thinking. This counters the natural (and essential) pattern-forming and pattern-reinforcing nature of the brain, by deliberately setting out to trigger new patterns that otherwise would not have emerged.
So that’s why de Bono sees humour as being so significant in relation to ‘brain dynamics’ - even more so, he would argue, than reason. In an upcoming post, I’ll look at the important role that humour plays in organizational dynamics.