Many years ago, Arthur Koestler
wrote about three human responses, the HA!HA! reaction,
the AHA! reaction and the AAH...! reaction. He
suggested that we laugh when we unexpectedly see the
same thing in two different frames of reference. He
gave some illustrations:
(a) A masochist is a person who likes
a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot
(b) An English lady, on being asked by a friend what
she thought of her departed husband's whereabouts
replied: "Well, I suppose the poor soul is enjoying
eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn't talk about
such unpleasant subjects."
(c) A doctor comforts his patient: "You have a very
serious disease. Of ten persons who catch it only one
survives. It is lucky you came to me, for I have
recently had nine patients with this disease and all
died of it."
(d) Dialogue in a film by Claude Berri: "Sir, I would
like to ask you for your daughter's hand." "Why not?
You have already had the rest"
(e) A marquise at the court of Loius XV unexpectedly
returned from a journey and on entering his wife's
boudoir, found her in the arms of the bishop. After a
moment's hesitation, the marquis walked calmly to the
window, leaned out and began going through the
motions of blessing the people in the street. "What
are you doing" cried the anguished wife. "Monseigneur
is performing my functions, so I am performing his."
replied the husband.
Koestler saw a common pattern
underlying these five stories. He commented:
"... we discover after a little
reflection that the marquis's behaviour is both
unexpected and perfectly logical, but of a logic not
usually applied to this type of situation. It is the
logic of the division of labour, governed by rules as
old as human civilisation. But we expected that his
reactions would be governed by a different set of
rules - the code of sexual morality. It is the sudden
clash between these two mutually exclusive set of
rules or associative contexts which produces the
comic effect. It compels us to perceive the situation
in two self consistent but incompatible frames of
reference at the same time... In humour, both the
creation of a subtle joke and the re-creative act of
perceiving the joke, involve the delightful mental
jolt of a sudden leap from one plane or associative
context to another...
... In the film dialogue, the daughter's 'hand' is
perceived first in a metaphorical frame of reference,
then suddenly in a literal bodily context...
... The doctor thinks in terms of statistical
probabilities the rules of which are inapplicable to
individual cases... the patients odds of survival are
still one against ten....
Koestler went on to term the act of
discovery as the AHA! experience. Creativity consists
in combining two different frames in such a way that
you get more out of the emergent whole than you have
put in. It is the
lateral flash that is creativity not the vertical
thinking within a single frame. Archimedes in his bath
tub suddenly saw the connection of his bath with the
problem of the weight of water displaced by bodies
immersed in it. Thousands before Newton saw apples fall
but did not make the connection with the sun and the
planets. Unsurprisingly perhaps, many famous scientists
have also been known for their sense of humour.
And so to the AAH...! experience which to Koestler was
self transcending - where you lose yourself in another
frame - "an expression of a longing to enter into a
quasi-symbiotic communion with a person, living or
dead, or some some higher entity which may be nature or
a form of art or a mystic experience".
To Koestler this was a manifestation of the integrative
tendency in each one of us. You may watch a sunset and
almost merge with it and breathe AAH...! You may listen
lose yourself in the magic of her song and almost feel
transported to another frame of existence and breathe