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The handout below on the strategic use of jokes in brief therapy, was prepared for a dialogue titled "Humor in Brief Therapy" between Steve Andreas and Michael Hoyt at the 2012 Milton H. Erickson Foundation conference "Brief Therapy: Lasting Solutions" in San Francisco.
Humor, the Brain, and Personal Change
"In Heaven, they tell jokes; In Hell they explain them."*
When someone has a "problem," they usually get intently serious about it, and may resent anyone who says anything humorous about it. I've watched a lot of therapy sessions, with therapists of many very different orientations. One of the things I have noticed is that most therapists, and most therapy, is very serious. (First people get serious, then they get dead serious, and then they just get dead.)
However, Virginia Satir, one of the greatest therapists who ever lived, used a lot of humor in her sessions. Besides being enjoyable, the mental processes involved in humor are often exactly what someone needs to understand a problem in a different way, and begin to take steps to resolve it.
In every joke or cartoon, there is a "set-up" in which an ordinary and easily understood narrative is created, with a generally accepted meaning. Then the "punch line" completely changes this, and our response is to smile or laugh as we embrace a new—and usually unexpected perspective and meaning.
Here is my current favorite example: "What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?"
Most of us immediately begin to consider the possible praises, and which we'd most like to have said of us: "She was so generous and kind, and contributed to the neighborhood." "He was a great guy, sensitive and empathic."
Notice how your image changes when you hear the surprising answer, "Look! He's moving!"
What makes this joke funny is that we begin with the assumption that we have died. But when we hear the punch line, our images, understanding, and meaning change completely; the implication of "moving" means that we are alive, replacing the presupposition of being dead.
Every joke, and every other kind of humor involves some kind of shift in attention and perspective that changes your images; when your images change, often your understandings and meanings also change. This is exactly the kind of change that occurs when someone resolves a problem, whether it is a personal one, or one in science or art.
Often therapists talk about the usefulness of "reframing" in changing someone's understanding, as if it were a single process. In fact, there are at least 17 distinctly different processes (depending on how fine your distinctions are) that have been described using the word "reframing." (1) See brief list below.
What is really interesting is that these 17 processes are exactly the same processes that occur in both humor and creative inspiration and discovery. In short:
Reframing = Humor = Creativity
We also know a little about what goes on neurologically when this process occurs. It has been known for some time that left frontal lobe damage often results in depression (and very little humor). Right frontal lobe damage often results in either an inability to appreciate humor, or in attempts at humor that normal people think is strange or inappropriate—and not funny. Evidently humor requires—and activates—both frontal lobes functioning together simultaneously. If you want to explore this further, search online for "frontal lobe damage and depression" (or humor) and you can find lots more to read.
Some fascinating experiments shed light on how the hemispheres of the brain are integrated in humor. When horizontal moving lines are presented to the left visual field (processed by the right hemisphere), and vertical moving lines are presented to the right visual field (processed by the left hemisphere) subjects report seeing either vertical lines or horizontal lines, but only very rarely both (a "crosshatch" of intersecting lines). This is called "binocular rivalry"—only one image makes it to our awareness at a time, and the other is not consciously noticed. The image seen tends to switch back and forth between the two hemispheres roughly twice per second.
Interestingly, researchers in Australia have found that people with bipolar disorder took up to 10 times longer than normal people to switch from one hemisphere to the other. (2) As this lab was carrying out research with a subject, someone cracked a joke, and the subject saw a crosshatch that persisted for some time. Following up on this surprise discovery, they found that laughing integrates the functioning of the two hemispheres, eliminating binocular rivalry for up to half an hour. (3)
Given the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that a recent article from the New York Times reports that humor results in significantly greater creative problem-solving. (4)
When someone comes to therapy, it is usually because their conscious mind is troubled by some kind of behavior or response that occurs as a result of unconscious processes. Our conscious minds are excellent at solving conscious problems, but not as good at solving unconscious ones, in which activity in the "silent" hemisphere is likely a major factor. Wouldn't you like to be able to utilize the skills and resources of both hemispheres when you have a problem?
So when you need to solve a problem, ask someone else to tell you some jokes, or think of several of your own favorites, or just step back into a time when you were helpless with laughter. Get a good laugh going to activate and balance your hemispheres, and then think about your problem. Reboot your laughter at least every 20 minutes or so—and more often if you really want to have a good time.
*For an exquisitely detailed guided trip through hell, read Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind.
A Reorganization by Steve Andreas
Every reframing pattern changes one or more of the following: a scope of experience in time or space, the categorization of a scope, or the logical level of categorization. The outline below helps you understand how all the different reframing patterns are related, what kind of change of experience will usually result from each, and points out ambiguities in earlier presentations of reframing patterns. Whenever a pattern has previously been named (for instance in Robert Dilts' "sleight of mouth" descriptions) that name is used. Dilts lists 14 different patterns; the list below contains 24, but some are different names for the same kind of scope/category distinction, and a few differ only in content. Keep in mind that although each sentence-stem question asks for a particular distinction, the responder may answer with a different one—good information about how they are organized.
1. Change of Scope:
2. Change of Categorization (at the same logical level)
3. Change of Logical Level of Categorization:
Going to a more specific category "And that is what specific kind of. . . ?"
Looping between category and example, or between category and subcategory. These patterns are seldom applicable, but very useful when they are, because they are logically "airtight." Both of these loop between logical levels; the category includes itself as an example.
Ambiguous Reframing Patterns (in addition to Meta, or Meta-frame, above) Each of the categories below is an example of one of the previous categories.
This is a very sparse summary of the content of the 2-volume book, Six Blind Elephants.
©2000-2015 Steve Andreas