Science Book a Day Interviews Scott Weems


Special thanks to Scott Weems for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why

Scott Weems’s career began as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he served as communications officer onboard the USCGC YOCONA in Kodiak, Alaska. His travels then took him to New Orleans, Boston, Los Angeles, Annapolis, and Little Rock, earning graduate degrees in psychology, education, and creative writing along the way.  He also has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from U.C.L.A. and once made a little girl cry by telling her that some people go to school until the 26th grade. – From Scott’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Ha!?

As for the impetus for Ha!, I’ve always loved humor and been curious about it and how it works, which I think is very common. I essentially wanted to write a book that combined my love for humor with my love for science, which stems from my background in psychology and cognitive neuroscience. It has always struck me that humor is a lot like creativity and intelligence and language, in that it is extraordinarily complex, but also uniquely human (generally). It deserves more respect and attention, in my opinion.

#2 – You look at how complex humour is. What can it tell us about mental illnesses and the brain?

I’m not sure about mental illnesses, but humor certainly does tell us a lot about personality, especially the “edgy” parts. Take for example neuroticism. This, it turns out, is closely linked with sense of humor. The important thing to remember is that neuroticism doesn’t imply pathology, since we all live somewhere on a spectrum from completely stable to the opposite of that. Being humorous, and also being successful at other things too, seems to be linked with being at least a little neurotic. So stability, like so many other things, might be best in moderation.

#3 – You talk about computers generating jokes. How can this work inform future work in making computers funny? Will we benefit from computers that can understand humour?

I think that the day we teach computers to “get” jokes, that will be the day that they are capable of independent thought. Jokes require so much interpretation of subtlety and context, that they become a great test for advanced thought. This is complicated, though, because computer thought doesn’t have to be just like ours. My guess is that it will have to share one important trait, which is messiness. People generally aren’t linear thinkers, which is great for humor, and I think funny computers will have to operate the same way.

#4 – What did the process of doing stand-up comedy teach you? Is a change of career in order?

As for doing stand-up, there is 0% chance of me pursuing this as a career. I love comedy, but I’m perfectly fine being a spectator. I tell myself that this is fine, because studies show you don’t have to be funny to get the benefits of humor; exposure is enough. So we don’t have to be comedians, just enjoy a good joke. All that said, I loved the experience of trying my hand on stage, and I can see why people punish themselves by seeking it out as a career.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

As for next project, I have a piece of humorous fiction that I would like to be my second book. When I wrote Ha!, I had people urging me to write about laughter instead, because it was measurable and more easily defined scientifically. Now, I have people telling me to follow up with a similar book to Ha!, so if there’s a theme, it’s that I’m doing what I want to do and what’s more immediately difficult. Lets hope it works out.

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