The Basel Humor Congress

by Prof. William F. Fry

Introduction to the 4th Congress

William F. Fry, M.D., Prof. L.F.A.P.A., Stanford University, Gründungsmitglied Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, Mitglied des Executive Board of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS 1994-97), Mitglied der Academia de Humor d'Espana, Nevada City, USA

lt is my great pleasure to be here again this year. An enormous stop has been taken by this activity during the time since my previous participation, in 1997. The sponsoring organization, HumorCare, has been formed, and has taken a progressive position and vigorous action regarding the Basel Congress and its subject matter. We all are now able to join together in HumorCare. We are now able to make specific and significant contributions to the achievement of the goals of Humor in der Therapie. We now have a substantial vehicle for intercommunication, networking, sharing our ideas and experiences and hopes and insights. We have an effective instrument for helping us attain our career goals, and to implement our beliefs.

We are much benefitted by the persistence, imagination, enthusiasm and dedicated work of the scientists and scholars who have labored so well to create for us this HumorCare organization. Many people have contributed to this creation. I have only time enough to mention on this occasion the central individuais of this creation. We are all deeply and happily indebted to (alphabetically): Iren Bischofberger, Amy Carrell, Max Deon, Renate Eberle, Peter Hain, Rolf Hirsch, Eleonore Hoefner, Willibald Ruch, Maria Schwarz, René Schweizer, Enrico Luisoni and Rainer Luginbuehl from the organisation with the website and my dear friend, Michael Titze. Let's give them a cheer.

Theoreticially, Humor as a marker at the border of human cognition at our present level of evolution. Experiences of humor initiate paradoxes of infinite regress in human mentation. Our thought processes briefly become chaotic. We lose the ability to completely analyze and understand this mental experience of humor. But we can enjoy this remarkable experience of brief self-generated chaos. Artistically, it can be likened to quickly running through a chamber of mirrors.

However, our human experience with Humor has a larger and deeper dimension beyond this personal mental enjoyment. It reaches into the sphere of total biologic function and the essence of life of humans - and perhaps aII other creatures that at least are capable to play. The human humor response is accompanied by biologic (physiologic) phenomena. This physiologic phenomena gives testimony, on the broadest scale, to the dynamic nature of our life process. Through my experiences of examining and studying humor phenomena, I have formed the view that human biology is not best described by the principle of homeostasis - at present the most widely accepted principle - but rather by the principle of homeodynamics. This principle of homeodynamics was first described by me at the 1992 International Society for Humor Studies annual conference at Paris/St. Denis, France. Homeodynamics defines functioning systems of entire and continuous, rather than intermittent, interaction of all component elements of each biologic entity. Abstracts are available at the tables outside.

It is not a haphazard accident that the presentation program for this Congress includes four persons who have contributed, during the past 30 years, important advances of basic knowledge about humor, mirth (lustig) and laughter. These persons are, alphabetically: myself, Rod Martin, Paul McGhee and Willibald Ruch. Each of the other three persons, beside myself, have scheduled opportunity in the program to comment on the significance and values of their own research.

For myself, I have thought of my studies as having similarities to the observation by Galileo, during the 16th Century, of the moons of Jupiter. Galileo did not discover something that did not already exist. The moons were there, waiting to be observed. Galileo observed and communicated his observation to the rest of humanity, with the result that this new knowledge became the base for greater understanding, became a stimulus for extension of theory and practice, prompted previously unanticipated changes of belief and philosophy - and even religion. In a Science Journal paper entitled, Galileo's Discoveries in Dynamics, Prof. Norwood Hanson, philosopher at Yale University, wrote (January 29, 1965) on the 400th anniversary of Galileo's birth, "What was discovery to Galileo? lt was the perception of cohesive structure within the buzzing detail of experience. For him, every falling coin, every wind-blown Ieaf, every new moon was a special kind of anomaly, an occasion for inquiry. Phenomena like these, familiar but not understood, were the windows through which the anatomy of the universe could be witnessed... Galileo had found a code of physical existence... lt soon came to be recognized that the code was infinitely more complex than Galileo had imagined."

Those words could be used to describe the experiences I have had in my own research studies. I have not seen myself as exhibiting a special creative genius in these studies. As an example, take the physiologic studies I have conducted. My observations did not create some remarkable truth or beauty that had not previously been there. I simply observed what had already been there since the beginning of the human race. The expansion and contraction of the lungs with laughter, the sudden increase of heart rate and circulation, the muscular activity, the surge of hormones and immune substances, the brain activation. These were not new to the universe. Like the moons of Jupiter, they were there to be seen. I saw them, communicated my observations to others; further windows were opened "through which the anatomy of the universe can be witnessed" and "unimagined complexities are unfolding" - even now, even here.

Much of what is examined and discussed in this congress is related to what I have just recounted. Like the discovery that Jupiter has moons, we have discovered that humor has a physical presence. Humor is not simply a literary or verbal or visual product of creative genius. Humor is also interpersonal; it is emotional; it is psychological; it is linguistic; it is also physical. Also, in this, include mirth (or lustig). What we can do with that discovery is highly individual, is practically limitless, depending upon the creative imagination and vitality of each individual. And it opens up, as have the moons of Jupiter, a vaste range of conjecture, belief and extended investigation.

But also, as in the case of Galileo and the moons, along with the positive results of discovery and the opening of new frontiers, there can be negative consequences of new knowledge and opportunity. Ritual compulsion, jealousies and fears of the new and the innovative can fuel antagonism and condemnation of discoverers. The Inquisition pursued Galileo. I, myself, was damned throughout the world in 1971 by wire service newspaper headlines that blasted me as the crazy scientist who claimed that laughter could be injurious to one's health. And there have been other occasions when I have been criticized in perhaps less bizarre fashion, but still with faulty understanding of my true message and belief.

Galileo and I have not been the only scientists experiencing these sorts of negativism. Another of our Congress colleagues, Paul McGhee, was condemned in 1973 with fiery words written in a New York Times article. (Direct quotation) "Eastward sweeps the course of vampire." "Psychologists and sociologists are wiping off the smile and Ieaving only the bloodless carcass... All psychology disrupts, and absolute psychology disrupts absolutely."

But luckier than Galileo am I, that the culture characteristics are dillerent in our age from those which existed in 1630. My discoveries have not resulted in my being brought before the Inquisition, have not caused me to be threatened with torture and excommunication, have not brought about house restriction for the last 30 years of my life. Unlike Galileo I continue to be free to make presentations about my science throughout the Western world.

This luck is not mine alone. It spreads out into the lives of all of us who are her today. And that is true because we are all here in affirmation - not in negation - of new thought and perspective. This not a new astronomy and view of life resulting from recognition that planets exist and have satellites as does the sun. The new developements we celebrate here in this festival of intellect and joyfulness are representative of reawakening and rededication. We are emerging from the negative climate of the past five centuries. Our overwhelming discovery is that of returning to our own inner richness, and revaluing the capacity for shared humor with which each of us is born. Each of us is born with that gift. The capacity lies within each of us. The responsibility for how that capacity benefits each life is the individual responsibility for each one of us. Organizations such as HumorCare and activities such as the Basel Congress and the website provide support, guidance and encouragement for the unfolding of that richness of humor in our lives - today, tomorrow, next month, next year - hopefully for the rest of each life.

And so, each one of us must welcome each other one of us to this thrilling congress, where each of us will both teach and learn.