The Science of Wit

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Familiarity breeds neglect. Once perception settles into a comfortable pattern, we fall asleep to it.

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Only when the pattern is broken do we notice there is a pattern at all. The chains of mental habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson. Wit, whether visual or verbal, can make the commonplace uncommon again by breaking the habits that render perception routine. We tend to define the quality of wit as merely being deft with a clever comeback.

#1: Give the opposite answer to yes/no questions

But true wit is richer, cannier, more riddling. And the best of it is often based on a biological phenomenon called supernormal stimuli. The story of supernormal stimuli begins with the Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen.

As a boy growing up in The Hague in the s, Tinbergen was fascinated by the fish and fowl inhabiting the little pond in his backyard. These early encounters with the wildlife of the Netherlands informed his later work, and as an adult, he kept an aquarium in his home. They dropped their heads and raised their dorsal fins, a posture normally assumed only in the presence of a rival male. Wondering whether the fish were reacting to the postal van, Tinbergen introduced variously colored objects into the tank.

That orange spot is a good target for chicks to aim at when they peck at their mother to prompt her to regurgitate food. And Geary lays out a variety of kinds of wit, showing the way this play manifests—puns, rhyme, metaphor, slang, rap, to name a few—in a book that is itself an exercise in wit.

Dr. Evelyn Landers

Like other forms of creativity it is borne of knowledge. Having a rich vocabulary is a starting point. Curiosity is another important element.

Geary began his effort by researching the history of wit. For example, as the Financial Times paywall noted in August, in China, discussions of the MeToo movement rely on wordplay.


The hashtag RiceBunny and emojis for rice and a bunny signify discussion of sexual harassment without alerting censors to sensitive topics. Yet writing a book about wit was harder than the writer imagined. He raps, rhymes, puns, quips, jives, and dialogues his way through this rich history and analysis. The consummate nature of their acting and stage-presence is made even more striking by the minimal props and settings that the company normally works with.

The Biological Phenomenon That Explains Why Wit Works - The Atlantic

For Wit and Science , the only prop on stage was a table. This last was of a piece with the exuberant energy of movement and gesture from all the players throughout that melted the neutral space of the stage and recast it into the allegorical world of the text.

The barbershop quartet singing to a desolate Science made up of Fame Abhimanyu Gowda , Favour John Cherry , Riches Nilay Sah and Worship Yiannis Vogiaridis , dressed as Italian waiters with glasses and trays in hand, only to be abruptly spurned by her, or the hilarious lesson given by Idleness to a suggestively-named Ignorance Jyan Dutton , said something meaningful while avoiding a dour didacticism equally possible in a play of this kind. The atmosphere, whether of playful joy or of menace on Mount Parnassus, was further built up with the aid of music.

Redford himself, better known as a musician than a playwright, included four songs in the script, though the scores have been lost.

From Genius to Madness

As the final song faded, and the company accepted their well-earnt ovation, the audience missed two experienced educators, separated by a distance of several hundred years, gleefully winking at each other in deeply shared sympathy…. As the final song faded, and the company accepted their well-earnt ovation, the audience missed two experienced educators, separated by a distance of several hundred years, gleefully winking at each other in deeply shared sympathy… Dr Sasmita Sinha.