Shock, horror, jokes and Necker cubes: Why humour is funny and scary things are scary

By Gordon Rugg

Complex things often have simple causes. Here’s a classic example. It’s a fractal.

julia set detail

(From wikimedia)

Fractal images are so complex that there’s an entire area of mathematics specialising in them. However, the complex fractal image above comes from a single, simple equation.

Humour and sudden shocks are also complex, since they both depend on substantial knowledge about the world and about human behaviour, but, like fractals, the key to them comes from a very simple underlying mechanism. Here’s what it looks like. It’s called the Necker cube.

necker cube red

So what’s the Necker cube, and how is it involved with such emotive areas as humour and horror?

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Quote for the day

We trained hard . . . but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
Petronius Arbiter

It’s a quote widely used by cynical observers of organisations. Petronius Arbiter was a real person, and was cynical enough to come out with such a line, but did he actually say it?

The reality:

Callee says it best, on the Snopes message board:;f=101;t=000380;p=0

Turns out, the sucker is totally fake. Here is a great investigation of it.

The link is to an article by Jim Reeds, who found that the quote didn’t appear anywhere in the works of Petronius Arbiter, and was probably invented by Robert Townsend in Up the Organization (Knopf, New York, 1970).

Townsend also gave the world the following quote in the same book:

“And God created the Organization and gave it dominion over man…

Genesis 1, 30A, Subparagraph VII”