When laughter ruins a joke (and the internet)

I went to see Woody Allen’s new film last week and I have to say that you should never, ever see a Woody Allen film in New York City, unless you are a born-and-bred New Yorker.  It will ruin the experience.

For one, because it was “indie”, the theater was literally the length of a football field but incredibly narrow.  Which means that in a screen-size-to-viewing-distance ratio, it was considerably larger in my living room.  And being a Sunday evening, it was packed entirely with people who looked like they belonged in a Woody Allen movie: hipster girls and their boys, ancient New Yorkers, the French.  All of whom kept coughing, randomly changing seats, and occasionally texting during the film.

The quirks of the people paled in comparison, however, to one simple fact: they all loved Woody Allen so much that they laughed at literally everything.  Bad jokes, good jokes, things I’m not even sure were jokes – they all brought them to hysterics.

But too many laughs will ruin a movie, just like too much applause will ruin an encore.  We need to feel that happiness, joy, life, is authentic and excess so rarely is; very few things in life will really make us that orgasmically happy (orgasms, for one).  So when everyone is going crazy over something that truly doesn’t seem worth it, my brain wants to know what the heck is wrong with those people.

Our brain wants to learn certain things, even when the truth is staring it right in the face.  You can give rats chemicals to make them feel sick and flashing lights at the same time, but they will never make the association between lights and sick – it just isn’t the right kind of lesson.  But make their food taste funny and couple it with sickness, and they are quick to learn to avoid that food.

I think of overlaughter in the same way.  If there is just a bit too much laughter, my brain may actually make me laugh myself: it is close enough to how I actually feel to nudge me over in the direction of extra joy.  But when it is so unreasonably much, my brain rejects it: rather than assimilating, it contrasts, and insists that something is wrong with these people.

This is one of the dangers of the brain, its willingness to bend reality to fit its own model of what the world should be.  If people tell you food tastes great, even if it doesn’t really taste that good to you, your brain will make it taste good over time.  It likes to fall in line, to believe what the filter tells us.  People have been writing a great deal lately about how the internet’s tendency to serve up things it thinks we will like may be denying us access to diversity and new things and our brain is complicit in that; it loves to believe that a recommendation really is made just for us.

But do not despair.  Unless, like a bad Woody Allen movie, the prompt-response paradigm is so far off that your brain can’t even get it to match up, this also means that your brain will make diversity worthwhile.  In a world where we have to work to get rid of the filters and explore, cognitive dissonance (your brain’s tendency to make actions and thoughts line up) suggests that when we work to experience diversity, our brain will say “we worked to do this, it must matter!”.

Which ultimately suggests: do the work.  Seek out things you wouldn’t normally have sought out.  And for the love of god, don’t go see things with a group of people who have already decided to like them exuberantly.  Instead, find explorers like you: ready to experience the world, but not having defined yet what those experiences will be or mean.  Let their experience push you around enough to assimiliate towards happiness, not contrast yourself into the back of a movie theater, pretty much hating everyone else sharing the movie.

Which, ironically, may make me into Woody Allen.  He would have walked out of that movie theater neurotically complaining about the people, just like I’m doing now.  Damn.