Question: From a Cleveland reader: "I came to the U.S. when I was 10 years old, speaking only Croatian. Now, 30 years later, I find I still dream in Croatian and don't 'get' jokes in English. People have to forewarn me that a joke is coming. Why this lingo-lag for me?"

Answer: Bilinguals report a number of interesting linguistic effects in their dreams. Some seem to stay with their native language for quite awhile, whereas others switch quickly, even before becoming completely fluent, says Harvard psychologist Deidre Barrett. Most common is for these dreamers to switch from language to language, often using their later language when dreaming of present issues and their earlier language when dreaming about people from the past, childhood emotional issues, etc.

As to a bilingual's response to jokes, some jokes that are very physical or rely on tone of voice may translate well. However, some forms of humor such as puns rely on such a subtle sense of a language that an adult learner may never get them.

Question: Researcher Robert Provine had already written about the difficulty of tickling oneself when, soaping his foot in the shower one day, he was startled to find that his sole tickled more than it should have. Then what happened?

Answer: Psychology professor Provine, author of "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation," decided to experiment: He discovered greater ticklishness when he tickled his left foot with his right hand or his right foot with his left hand ("contralateral" or opposite-side tickling) than when he tried same-side ("ipsilateral") tickling. Later, he had a number of his college students test this out on themselves, and they too rated their contra experience as stronger (4.2 vs. only 2.9).

Tickling is basically a form of communication with a lover, partner or child, explains Province, and your nervous system generally cancels out touch stimuli that you yourself produce. He theorized that with contralateral stimulation, our brain is less likely to recognize it as self-produced because information from the tickling hand and the tickled foot ascend on different sides of the spinal cord and arrive at relatively different times. "Apparently, this greater arrival-time disparity is interpreted as 'more otherness' and generates a more intense sensation of tickle."

Question: Laughter can be a funny thing, especially when it's chimpanzees doing the laughing. What's so funny to them?

Answer: Charles Darwin noted that if a young chimp is tickled in its sensitive armpits, a decided chuckling or laughing sound may follow, though it is sometimes noiseless, reports Jim Holt in "Discover" magazine. Primatologists often term this a breathy pant that can be elicited as well by rough-and-tumble play, games of chasing and mock attack — just like children before the emergence of verbal joking at age 5 or 6.

And after researcher Roger Fouts taught a chimp named Washoe sign language, Washoe once urinated on the professor while riding on his shoulders, then snorted and signed the word "funny." Washoe also playfully wielded a toothbrush as if it were a hairbrush. Another of Fouts's signing chimps called a purse a "shoe," wearing it on her foot, and a third took delight in offering people rocks as "food." Such deliberate misnamings or misuses of things are akin to the jokes of pre-school children. Thus they fit the classic "incongruity theory" of humor, which holds that mirth comes from a sudden surprising yoking together of two things normally kept mentally separate.


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