How Humor Can Fuel Innovation: Barry Kudrowitz (Transcript)

Full text of Barry Kudrowitz’s talk: How Humor Can Fuel Innovation at TEDxUMN conference. In this talk, Barry makes the case for humor as a fuel for creativity and explains why you might want to hold on to your silly ideas.

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Barry Kudrowitz – Associate Professor and Director of Product Design at the University of Minnesota

Hi, everyone. Wow!

So, I don’t feel that humor gets the academic attention it deserves. There’s a humor for the sake of humor. For example, when I was a graduate student at MIT, I worked on this ketchup pooping robot that somehow went viral.

And then, there’s humor that can lead to some serious innovation. In my research, I’ve studied connections between humor and creativity. And there’s one relatively well accepted theory of creativity called the ‘associative theory.’ And this one states that creativity is about making non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things.

So, here’s an example. This is Cyrus McCormick, and the Cyrus invented the mechanical reaper. And it said that the way he came up with this idea was he saw shears being used for hair and he said, “Hair is a lot like wheat, why don’t we make some giant shears to cut the wheat?” And right now, this seems very obvious to us; ‘Yes, that’s a good way of cutting wheat.’

But at the time, that’s not what they’re doing, right? They’re hacking away at the wheat. More recently, somebody said, “Don’t shears look a lot like bunny ears?” And this person made bunny scissors.

These are very different examples, right? One is more about form; one is about function; one is very, what is it called? One is very serious. But they’re both examples of these associative theory of creativity; they’re both making non-obvious connections between seemingly unrelated things.

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And recently, they found a place in your brain that’s partially responsible for making these non-obvious connections. It’s called the posterior superior temporal sulcus. And just next to this region is the ‘Aha’ zone; and this is the part of your brain that lights up when you come to some realization. And it’s also the part of your brain that lights up when you get the punch line to a joke. Really cool, right?

So there’s a few things in common, between humor and creativity. But not all humor is creative; there’s several varieties of humor. Here’s three. the first one I’m going to talk about is the ‘Release Theory of Humor.’ And the release theory of humor goes back to prehistoric times, so here’s a caveman and he’s out hunting with his tribe, with a spear, and maybe he sees something in the distance. So, he like goes over to this thing and then, maybe this tree starts shaking.

And then, he starts shaking because it could be a large animal that’s going to come out and eat him. And then it turns out, ‘Oh, it was nothing.’ And he laughs, because it’s an emotional release; it’s catharsis, right?

But it’s also communication, so the rest of the tribe that ‘Everything’s okay. I’m not in danger anymore.’ And we started using this recently in popular culture, like things like The Office or Ali G, right? They make you laugh by making you feel really uncomfortable for a character or situation.

So, just out of curiosity, how many people in the audience like that type of humor? Round of applause. Anyone?

So, the next theory of humor is the evil one. This is the superiority theory that says, we laugh at other people’s misfortunes. Right? We laugh when someone slips on a banana peel or gets hit in the head with a 2×4 because ha-ha-ha, that sucks for you. It didn’t happen to me, and therefore I am better than you are. Who likes this type of humor?

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