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  What's so funny?
U-M researchers study humor, starting with New Yorker cartoons


Imagine the possibilities, as Bob Mankoff has.

"When you start doing the research, you're going to be surprised by what you find. You might find that humor is a very good predictor of the onset of depression or Alzheimer's," says Mankoff, cartoon editor of the New Yorker magazine. "You might find that humor is like the canary in the coal mine, that it's a good predictor of things going wrong."

That's the kind of outcome that could result from the University's new three-year project titled Humor at Michigan. As the program begins, researchers from a variety of fields—including psychology, medicine, anthropology, history and more—plan to study humor with the help of a database of every New Yorker cartoon printed since the magazine's beginning.

The New Yorker gave the University free access to the database, and researchers can use the cartoons in a variety of ways, including changing an image as a way of testing hypotheses. The use of the database is bound by complex guidelines, including that faculty and graduate students cannot change a cartoon and then publish it as their own. U-M also is adding to the search function of the database so it encompasses categories that will be of use to academic researchers.

The Knight-Wallace Fellows at Michigan brought Mankoff to campus two years ago, says Charles Eisendrath, who directs the program and is organizing Humor at Michigan. Then Eisendrath asked administrators at the Psychology Department if they would be interested in bringing Mankoff back for a lecture series, which they did last year.

Eisendrath then coordinated modest financing to do the three-year pilot humor program, with support from the Institute for the Humanities, the Rackham Graduate School, the Department of Psychology, the Depression Center and the fellows program.
"It is exciting to essentially be starting a brand new field."
—Psychology Chair
Richard Gonzalez

Eisendrath is excited about the possibilities. "Nobody really understands why humor exists. What is the evolutionary function of humor, for example? That's the kind of query we're all interested in. What are the physiological manifestations? What happens to your brain? What happens to your senses? Would it be of any use to people who are depressed? Do other species have it?" he says. "It's amazing to stumble across a field that's so wide open."

He praises Mankoff as a "first rate entrepreneur and humorist" who brings special insight to the project, since he once studied experimental psychology. Mankoff's visits to campus will include lectures and a Humanities fellowship, he says.

In addition to using New Yorker cartoons, says Psychology Chair Richard Gonzalez, researchers will use a broader data set that includes books, TV shows such as "Seinfeld" and other humorous materials that can help illustrate how social norms have changed through the years.

Researchers can look at the effects of humor on people's health, the way race and gender have been portrayed in different generations, and how people react when they understand a joke or cartoon.

The program is still in the early stages, but Gonzalez sees it growing through the years and making U-M a major center for the study of humor.

"It is exciting to essentially be starting a brand new field," Gonzalez says. "Michigan is probably the only place in the world that could bring together so many different disciplines."

One of the researchers who will perform some humor-related studies is William Gehring, associate professor of psychology. The idea began last year, when Mankoff visited campus for a series of lectures. One of Gehring's graduate students, Adrian Willoughby, had Mankoff wear a cap connected to wires. He showed Mankoff a series of cartoons and had Mankoff push a button when he got the point of the cartoon.

Something similar could happen with future research subjects, Gehring says. The idea of the experiment is to observe brain activity as the subject goes through the process of looking at and understanding (or not understanding) the cartoon. The process would be similar to Gehring's current study of people's brain activity when they make mistakes or when they find out they've won or lost money in a gambling exercise.

Gehring plans to join forces with Richard Lewis, associate professor of psychology, linguistics, and electrical engineering and computer science. Lewis is using the New Yorker cartoons to test subjects' eye movements and dilation as they observe the various parts of the cartoon.

Colleen Seifert, associate professor of psychology, also is conducting research using the cartoons.

The cartoons also are available to the public with the recent release of "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker" (Black Dog & Leventhal), a book containing 2,500 cartoons and two discs holding all 68,647 cartoons published by the New Yorker from 1925 through last February.

Mankoff points out that the studies are not designed to dissect humor to the point that it no longer is funny.

"It's trying to see how something works. This isn't supposed to tell you how to be funny," he says.

Gonzalez agrees, and he says that it is, in fact, fun to study humor.

"When social scientists have looked at humor in the past, they made it really unfunny," Gonzalez says. "It's a lot of fun. It's very different from the work I usually do."

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