The comedy of nonsense: a cognitive deconstruction of relevance and Reggie Watts

Headings are often ultra-condensed summaries of what’s to come, or at least they connect to it comprehensively if however loosely. What if the heading is simply incomprehensible? Then it better be a good excuse for what could be seen as mocking the intelligence of the reader. Let’s see if we have a good excuse for titling the next section as…

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

What did you gather from that sentence? What did it mean? Could it mean anything at all? Before attempting to answer these questions a bit of history about the sentence itself.

The “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” sentence was crafted by no other than the linguist Noam Chomsky. The sentence is an example of an enunciation that is grammatically and syntactically correct but semantically nonsensical. Which is a fancy and technical way to say that the sentence is perceived to roll smoothly because its grammar is flawless and the words are in the right order, but at the same time one cannot fail to notice that it is incredibly hard to truly comprehend. In short, it feels like nonsense.

How would a “green idea” that simultaneously lacks color look like when it is sleeping violently? It is an understatement to say that this is a difficult situation to imagine. To try to visualize a picture showing a colorless green idea sleeping furiously feels more and more hopeless the harder one tries to render the image inside one’s mind. But still, we bet you tried to do just that. Everyone does. Furthermore, we bet you are still trying. We all persist. It is OK, you are just one more in a long line of people that have doggedly tried to make sense out of it. That is normal.

What is more newsworthy is to learn that some people have actually made progress at digging out some meaning out of such a semantic atrocity. The trick is to use metaphorical routes to exploit the ambiguity in some of the words contained in the sentence. For instance, if we look at the elements of the sentence with a more metaphorical mindset then “green” can mean more than just a color. It can be understood as immature, undeveloped, in an embryonic stage, etc. The same lyrical approach can be applied to “colorless”, which becomes then something dull, without character or in-distinctive. You get the gist. If one is indeed very creative at metaphorical thinking, then it is possible to painfully extract some form of meaning from this sentence. This is what C. M. Street did when he submitted his entry for a competition held in Stanford University dedicated exclusively to come up with meaningful interpretations of Chomsky’s sentence. A truly linguistic extreme sport. The he submitted entry was this one:

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

But let’s face it, the likelihood that you were able to conjure up a metaphorical wizardry of this caliber when you tried to make sense of Chomsky’s sentence is, to put it mildly, freakishly tiny. Whatever, we are not here to shame anybody. After all, for once this is the proverbial kind of competition where what really matters is to try. Mostly because trying to make sense out of Chomsky’s challenge is literally unavoidable so we might as well recognize the effort.

The first time you tried, probably you felt completely unsatisfied with your nebulous first mental representation and went back to rehearse the sentence. This time more focused. More determined to extract something sensible out of it. Perhaps you went meticulously parsing it word-by-word while slowly drawing a mental image as the information contained in each word was getting orderly decoded. But that also quickly fails. Colorless and green… OK, that detail can be left for later strokes. The point is that the ideas are sleeping. So, suddenly we bet the ideas got closed eyes on a blurry non-descript “face”. Very likely there was even a bed and they, the ideas, they are on top of it. How do they look like? Besides them having closed eyes, who knows? But that can wait. Then, they are furious… while sleeping… so, the eyes stay closed but they are frowning “furiously”. Almost there… except that one cannot delay coloring their faces any longer… green and colorless… the whole image seems to crumble down again because they just cannot be both at the same time! Back to the sketch board. At some point you give up and think that you might have learned the lesson: thou shalt not make sense out of semantic nonsense. But then, if we tell you:

Hey, listen, today I learned that slender overweight precepts jumps statically.

You would likely find it impossible to totally restrain yourself from trying to mentally picture immovable but jumpy precepts. To give up trying to “make sense out of nonsense” is a lesson that can be comprehended theoretically but never quite implemented in practice.

The thing is that the “semantic hub” of your brain (possibly the middle temporal gyrus) is forever ready to get to work with whatever linguistic monstrosity is thrown at it.

If it is true that ordering the words correctly in a sentence does not guarantee that the sentence will be easily intelligible, it is nevertheless striking just how much interpretative rapport ordering the words correctly gives you. Put quite a bit more technically: lexical semantics relies very heavily on syntax and less heavily on grammar. After all, it is true that grosser grammar mistakes is relative easy to corrects, but, word badly order up messed is not.

Expectation of relevance.

Here is something else you cannot avoid doing. When you are about to read something or you realize that someone is about to tell you something, you expect the sentence or utterance to be relevant. Whether what you have read or listened to was indeed relevant or not depends on an a posteriori evaluation. Of course the truth value of this proposition depends on what one means by “relevant”. No problem, to define the concept of relevance should not be a particularly daunting task, right? Well that depends on your background. Those of us who do not navigate the world looking at concepts through the lens of analytic philosophy might find it relatively simple to define relevance and move ahead. But cognitive scientists, linguists and other professionals of related fields simply refuse to do so. No concept, however unassuming it might seem, can remain simple for long in their hands.

Introducing “Relevance theory” as conceived and revised by cognitive scientists Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber:

Relevance theory may be seen as an attempt to work out in detail one of Grice’s
central claims: that an essential feature of most human communication, both verbal
and non-verbal, is the expression and recognition of intentions.

So far, so good. Relevance theory is a tool (in an increasingly crowded toolkit) that we can use to unravel how exactly it is that humans express their intentions and recognize the intentions of others when communication takes place. In a nutshell, relevance theory builds a framework that can be applied to asses, first, what makes a piece of information relevant, and second, how to decide which bit of information is more relevant than other bits of information.

Let’s think about two persons, one is the communicator and the other is the receiver of a message broadcasted by the communicator. What kinds of messages can any given individual send to another? Plenty: a verbal utterance, a sound, a certain “look”… a “like”. But let’s concentrate on linguistically-coded messages of the oral kind (although the written kind would work just as well). Thus, the communicator is simply a speaker and the receiver is just a listener. When is an utterance relevant to the listener? According to Wilson and Sperber a message is relevant when:

…it connects with background information he [the listener] has available to yield conclusions that matter to him: say, by answering a question he had in mind, improving his knowledge on a certain topic, settling a doubt, confirming a suspicion, or correcting a mistaken impression.

Whenever any of those outcomes occurs then it is said that the message caused a “positive cognitive effect” on the listener. And more precisely, a positive cognitive effect is:

…a worthwhile difference to the individual’s representation of the world – a true conclusion, for example. False conclusions are not worth having. They are cognitive effects, but not positive ones.

Now in plain(er) English. A spoken message is relevant when whoever listens to it obtains information that can be useful in a number of manners. It can make the listener leap into a goal-intended action or it can improve their understanding of the world in whichever conceivable manner. Although this presentation of the concept of relevance is surely neater than almost any informal definition one is likely formulate on the spot, it does not contain any highly unorthodox element that makes it radically different from our casual notion of what relevance is. What is likely “newer” in Wilson and Sperber’s contribution to the concept of relevance are the specific criteria that they propose to rank the relevance of various inputs.The best way to introduce their ranking method is to look at one of their examples.

Mary is a girl who finds meat kind of icky and chicken makes her literally sick. She goes to a dinner party hosted by some people that either are not very good friends of her or that for no fault of their own did not know that Mary is cursed with chicken allergy. The time comes for the hosts to announce the menu for the night. They break the news to Mary in one of the following ways:

  1. We are serving meat.
  2. We are serving chicken.
  3. Either we are serving chicken or (7 x 7 – 3) is not 46.

All three pieces of information tell Mary in one way or another that she should better think of a polite way to excuse herself. All three pieces of information are relevant to Mary because all three can generate a positive cognitive effect in her (provided she does not fumble with the algebra and the logical injunction of the wickedly assembled option 3). But clearly Mary would be better served if the hosts leave the puzzles for later and go straight for number 2. Utterance 2 is clearly more relevant to Mary than utterance 1 because it confers more positive cognitive effect. 2 entails all the conclusions derivable from 1 but it makes it explicit that this is the kind of dinner where there is much more than a bad aftertaste coming her way. But utterance 3 conveys exactly the same information than 2. How do we decide which one is more relevant? Our intuition wants to scream “two!”, but on what basis? Wilson and Sperber say that 2 is more relevant not because our intuition leans towards that conclusion, but because decoding 2 demands much less processing effort than unpacking 3 to get exactly the same positive cognitive effect as a reward. In his work about the phenomenon baptized as the “Guru effect” Sperber belabors the point:

Everything else being equal, the greater the effort needed to process an utterance, the lesser its relevance. It would be more relevant for you to be told of the next train to Manchester, “it is at 5:16” than to be told, “it is twenty two minutes after 4:54” (unless, of course, the lapse between 4:54 and the departure of the train is of special relevance to you).

According to these criteria, how relevant is to be told that “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”? Not much. Not much at all… well, except if you needed to submit an entry about its meaning to the Stanford competition.

We took a little detour to learn something relevant about relevance, but that’s ok, because as a result we experienced positive cognitive effects and that is always a nice thing.

There is yet one other aspect contemplated in Relevance theory that is more relevant for this article than relevance itself. This is simply the fact that our default settings are such that we expect things said to us to have some degree of relevance.

The authors explain that utterances raise expectations of relevance not because we are always predisposed to assume that the person talking to us is a nice cooperative non-deceitful agent, but because (in their words): “the search for relevance is a basic feature of human cognition, which communicators may exploit. This is not the same as saying that cheaters can never cheat successfully because listeners will always outsmart them by managing to extract some minimally valuable information from whatever utterance they pronounce irrespective of how intentionally misleading it is. No, this is simply saying that there is at least one “module” in our brains that is wired to always instinctively try to formulate sensible mental representations from every input it receives. Even if at the same time a more “judicious” module is screaming that this is a hopeless mission. This is kind of the equivalent of the “orienting reflex” but for the cases when we are specifically bombarded by verbal stimuli.

Again, if I told you:

…hey, do not try to understand what I am going to say next because I am convinced that it is absolutely nonsensical: colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Even if you honestly vow to attend to my sincere bidding, you will inevitably catch yourself trying to erase sketchy traces of mental images picturing “sleepy ideas” that started to form without your permission.

Our cognitive machinery specialized in scanning messages searching for traces of relevance is always an instant ahead of us. Expectation of relevance cannot be shut down.

The comedy of nonsense.

All of this inescapably takes us to Reggie Watts, the German-born comedian (and rare musical talent) and his nonsensical humor.

Before reading further, please take some moments to watch him in action in the video below because otherwise everything that follows will seem extremely dull and hollow. (And be sure to make it through the initial… words and word-like noises?).

Whether you find Reggie Watts funny or not is a matter of taste. All we need to acknowledge here is that someone could find him funny and that to an intuitive level we can “see” why. After all, some laughs can be heard coming from the audience and one would need to be spectacularly cynical to claim that there must have been a dollar powering every laughter.

It should be similarly easy to acknowledge that Reggie did not make any joke in the conventional sense and nevertheless the people laughed.

Here are some excerpts from Reggie’s routine where we highlight the parts that the audience found most comical as it can be judged by the conspicuous bouts of laughter:

  • The future states that there is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories in which we are living (LAUGHS). Common knowledge, but important nonetheless. (LAUGHS).

  • As we face fear in these times and fear is all around us. We also have anti-fear (LAUGHS). It’s hard to imagine or measure. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis. (LAUGHS).

  • And just remember everything you are is more important to realize the negative space as music is only the division of space. It is the space we are listening to divided as such which gives us the information in comparison to something other that gives us the idea of what the idea that wants to be transmitted wants to be. (LAUGHS).

Why? Why to laugh at utterances like those? What could they possibly even mean? It is by no means clear that they actually mean something. If their meaningfulness is not at all obvious, then, how likely is it that the people laughing in the audience do so because they managed to decode a funny punchline out of those utterances? In other words, how likely is it that they transformed these utterances into ultimately just sophisticated jokes? Not very likely at all, we venture to guess.

The fun isn’t in the meaning of his speech. It is much more likely that what’s funny about his speech is somehow related to its apparently absolute lack of meaning. Then, the obvious question is: why would we find funny what we have failed to grasp? (echoing Sperber’s central conundrum of the “Guru effect“).

By now, we are almost in a position to advance an explanation for why Reggie Watts nonsensical comedic style is funny (while draining all the fun out of it along the way). We need one final piece to complete the puzzle though.

At some point in his paper about the Guru effect, Sperber uses uses a quotation from the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (although never accusing him of spewing nonsense):

Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being.

Reggie Watts looks kind of Sartre-esque now, doesn’t he? It would be an interesting and quite pretentious experiment to see how many people would be able to detect philosopher’s quotes such as this one if they were nested within one of Watts routines. Here is one more from Jacques Derrida:

If différance is (and I also cross out the ‘is’) what makes possible the presentation of the being-present, it is never presented as such. It is never offered to the present. Or to anyone. Reserving itself, not exposing itself, in regular fashion it exceeds the order of truth at a certain precise point, but without dissimulating itself as something, as a mysterious being, in the occult of a nonknowledge or in a hole with indeterminable borders (for example, in a topology of castration).

Funny, right? Not really. But why not? Give Watts a microphone and have him recite this verbatim and voilà! Fun is instantly created where non existed. Instead, when you are told that Sartré or Derrida said this or that, you are much more likely to sharpen your mind in anticipation so that it can cut right to the meaningful core of whatever the great philosophers had to say (something that is as far from a funny experience as anything). Your expectation of relevance peaks to the roof because it is automatically attuned to the context.

When the context is a philosophy seminar then it is time for serious cogitation. One expects to gain very positive cognitive effects at the expense of high processing effort. If the context is stand-up comedy delivered by someone who might have trouble seeing through the fantastical amount of hair over his face and head, then expectation of relevance lowers and one happily trades positive cognitive effects for some good fun. Even when it turns out that what can be said in both contexts is almost stylistically and syntactically identical. Context changes everything because the disambiguation power of context is central to communication.

One thing that not even the most relaxed of contexts can do is to totally turn off our expectation of relevance. Sure, when we see Reggie Watts getting up the stage we do not consciously expect or demand from him to explain to us what the meaning of life is (besides the Monthy Python already philosophized the hell out of that triviality for us). But we should not forget that “the search for relevance is a basic feature of human cognition, which communicators may exploit” and as such it can’t be completely snuffed out… ever. And this is great because that makes possible to literally laugh at literal nonsense if it is thrown at us in the right context.

When we listen to Reggie Watts unraveling one of his nonsensical ramblings we are simultaneously and even unwillingly trying to make sense out of it… and failing at it… every time. The comedic context removes whatever anxiety such a consistent chain of failure would entail in basically any other context. Instead, our failure at a task that we do not even want to perform but that we cannot avoid performing (trying to actually understand Reggie Watts) results in a very disorientingly funny experience.

So, what are you laughing at? it seems that you are laughing at yourself, or, more precisely at two conflicting and delayed processes that happen between different “modules” of yourself. Leaving Reggie Watts’ unique delivery and top class musical improvisations aside (as if that is possible), what he is essentially doing is triggering a cognitive “catch me if you can” game inside your head that your analytical self keeps on losing… and finding it hopelessly hilarious. You instinctively react as if what you are hearing is meaningful only to immediately find that it is not when it is already just a tad too late. You keep on finding yourself unable not to fall for the illusion of meaning that simple correct syntax creates.

Who would have guessed that by mixing syntactical correctness, nonsensical semantics, expectation of relevance in the right context something genuinely funny (no scintilla or sarcasm there) could be cooked up? We are weird creatures.

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