Dawn, 6:30 am. Mr. R is getting ready for breakfast. His office phone begins to ring.

“Good morning!”

“Hello, is this Mr. R, the research guy?”

“Yes, this is R. Thanks for calling! You sound distressed buddy, what’s the matter?”

“Well, I am. I haven’t been sleeping well, and my self-esteem these days is approaching zero. I was wondering if you could help my cause.”

“I’ll put the food on the table and call you back within five minutes.”

*A few minutes later*

“Alright, I’m listening.”

“Okay, R. You see, I’ve been hoping to get engaged to a special someone. She’s the daughter of old family friends of my parents. Our families have met several times over the last few months and we’re just about to give the cause up. This girl is extremely beautiful and articulate, and has proposals from several very eligible young men. Her parents, though, want her to settle for me because I’m pious and pray regularly.”

“And her?”

“Appalled. She’s categorically told her parents that I’m too dull for her. In fact, she‘s so convinced of my ‘insipidity’, in her words, that if I speak to her she looks away. My confidence, R, has been sufficiently deflated for me to fail to even bring up all the great books I’ve been reading.”

Silence at the other end.

“James.”

“Yes?”

“William James. 1884. His article in the philosophy journal Mind, ‘What is an Emotion?’”

“I have to activate her parasympathetic nervous system.”

“Good. But we need more than knowledge - we need understanding.”

“Okay. The great American psychologist William James, in the aforementioned article, asserts the following:

‘..bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion.’”

“So do people run from a bear because they’re afraid?”

“No, rather because we judge it best to run for our life. This act of fleeing induces physiological changes in the body - an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones etc. - which we recognize as activation of the sympathetic nervous system or, more commonly, the ‘fight or flight’ mode. In other words, we do not flee from a bear because we are afraid, but we are afraid because we flee.”

“Let’s be more succinct.”

“Alright, from Joseph DeLoux’s The Emotional Brain: the Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life: ‘The mental aspect of emotion, the feeling, is a slave to its physiology.’”

“Excellent, but where does the parasympathetic nervous system come in?”

“That’s the opposite of sympathetic - it’s the ‘rest and digest’ mode. It fosters healing. Bonding.”

“Okay. Can we think of a socially appropriate means to promote bonding?”  

“‘Rest and digest’.. food! I can cook a gourmet meal!”

“Wrong gender.”

Silence.

“Laughter.”

“Okay, so we need to make her think you’re funny?”

“No, we need that I make her laugh somehow, then she’ll think I’m funny.”

“Correct, and that endeavor - making her laugh - that can’t possibly be too hard?”

Pondering.

“..Only if you compare it to scaling Everest. She will not laugh easily; she may will herself not to. If the urge is there, she’ll try to repress it, perhaps even snort. At the minimum, she’ll try to hide it.”

“Why would she attempt to decline the pleasure of laughter?”

“Because we humans feel ‘cognitive dissonance’ - i.e. a sense of incongruency - to enjoy positive physical feedback courtesy of someone we don‘t like. Like when a guy gets chocolates for a girl who can’t return his feelings? She’ll refuse the gift too.” 

“Alright, alright! But tell me, if successful, why would her - succumbing! - to laughter make her change her mind about you?”

“There would follow a compelling need to resolve the incongruency of her disliking me but sharing in the pleasantry. Let me quote from James again:

‘If our theory be true, a necessary corollary of it ought to be that any voluntary arousal of the so-called manifestations of a special emotion ought to give us the emotion itself.. if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies.. go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate.’”

“Last question: why do women adore funny men?”

“Because affection and laughter are both responses of the parasympathetic nervous system.” 

“In other words, of bonding.”

n    The writer is the head of Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative. Scholars by Profession is a research workshop that initially came together as a research club on the eve of 2011.