In One Ear and Out the Other

Cover of "Laughter: A Scientific Investig...

Thank heavens someone is thinking about one of the most troublesome experiences I have — my inability to remember a joke I have heard, no matter how funny and no matter how determined I am to retain it to share with others later.

“Really great jokes… work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

This may also explain why the jokes we tend to remember are often the most clichéd ones. A mother-in-law joke? Yes, I have the slot ready and labeled.

Memory researchers suggest additional reasons that great jokes may elude common capture. Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory, says there is a big difference between verbatim recall of all the details of an event and gist recall of its general meaning.

“We humans are pretty good at gist recall but have difficulty with being exact,” he said. Though anecdotes can be told in broad outline, jokes live or die by nuance, precision and timing. And while emotional arousal normally enhances memory, it ends up further eroding your attention to that one killer frill. “Emotionally arousing material calls your attention to a central object,” Dr. Schacter said, “but it can make it difficult to remember peripheral details.” via NYTimes.

This may be a special case of something over which I have more generally puzzled — what is the difference between those raconteurs, who always seem to have a moving story or stories (funny or dreadful) to tell on any occasion, and others who are at a loss for words in social settings. I’m not talking about people who are shy or painfully inhibited so much as those who seem to have the material and those who don’t.

Is there that much of a difference in the content of people’s lives? Is it something about how observant they are? Or, again, something about memory function? I am fascinated by storytelling (for instance, I love the Moth podcast) and have always been intrigued by advertisements about storytelling workshops promising to develop attendees’ skills.

To some extent, there is a cultural influence as well. I suspect storytelling is a dying art, along with letter-writing and reading fiction, a way we used to interact and divert ourselves which is progressively and inexorably being supplanted in modernity. But there are still enough good conversationalists around to astound me.

Of course, other people may find it far easier than I do to talk about what happened to them during their workday, one of the important sources of our stories. As a therapist, I am privileged to hear in detail about a broad range of the lives of others, but all of what I am told, I am told in confidence. Perhaps I gravitated toward psychotherapy because I sensed myself to be a far better listener to the stories of others than I am a storyteller myself. In fact, some construe the work of psychotherapy as training our clients to become better storytellers about their own lives, as largely a matter of imposing coherence and pattern on their recollections and observations about themselves, making better sense of their lives, consequently appreciating and tolerating the humor and the pathos in their lives better, and developing an empathic connection to the life stories of those around them.


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