Confusion can be extremely frustrating. During my high school physics class, it seemed to be the only feeling I experienced, and it was the bane of my existence. When I’m trying to do my taxes? Again, not a fan of being confused. But sometimes, bewilderment can actually be fun.
Let us introduce you to the “hmmm” subreddit. With the tagline, “Internet as an art”, r/hmmm has almost 2 million members and is famous for posting some of the most perplexing photos on the internet. With very simple rules about what can be posted including “no text in the image (except normal logos)” and “all titles must be ‘hmmm’ (in lowercase)”, this community thrives on trying to decipher hilariously absurd images. Below, we’ve gathered a list of some of the funniest and most confusing pictures that we think you’ll get a kick out of. Enjoy these photos, but be careful not to get a headache trying to understand them. And if you can handle even more confusion after viewing this list, check out Bored Panda’s last publication featuring the same subreddit here.
More info: Reddit
I remember learning in a stand-up comedy class in college that when we’re confronted with things that don’t fit into our understanding of the world, that contradict what we know, but they’re treated as normal, our brains can cope with the confusion by finding humor in it. For example, situations we would never expect to happen in reality, such as children wearing suits and working in an office or a dog driving a taxi, can be really funny if they’re treated like mundane, everyday occurrences.
This idea is the basis for the popular genre of deadpan comedy. Deadpan, or dry humor, “uses a lack of emotion and facial expressions to highlight the absurdity of [a] joke”. This type of humor seems to be what’s at play in a lot of the “hmmm” posts. An odd or confusing situation, just existing in the world with no explanation.
Deadpan comedy has been around for at least 100 years, being mentioned in a New York Times article in the 1920’s, but like anything else, it has transformed and adapted with the times. While it was originally popularized in Vaudeville stage performances, it then became popular onscreen, and now it’s transitioned to the internet as well. Although a sarcastic tweet for comedic effect is debatable whether it qualifies as deadpan (without the presence of dead facial expression), the comedic concept is the same.
Some classic examples of deadpan comedians are Bill Murray and Leslie Nielsen. The 1980 film Airplane! featured Nielsen and a whole cast of characters performing deadpan deliveries throughout nearly the entire film. More recent examples of dry humor being used in popular sitcoms are Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Sacha Baron Cohen has also popularized the style by using deadpan delivery of his wacky characters to unsuspecting strangers in his films, including Borat and Ali G. Nathan Fielder follows a similar pattern using almost undetectable deadpan towards business owners he features on his show, Nathan For You.
The moderators of the hmmm subreddit describe “hmmm”s as “textless images that make you think about the context, do a double take, invoke a deeper meaning, or just leave you thinking about how or why they exist”. “hmmms should be aesthetic and meaningful” and “avoid anything that is merely r/mildlyinteresting”. Sounds kind of deep, doesn’t it? This subreddit that on the surface seems silly and purely for entertainment is encouraging us to sit in our curiosity, much like we did as children. And maybe experiencing some mild confusion is good for us.
Confusion is not a standard emotion (such as happiness, sadness, anger and fear), but according to Paul Silvia, author and professor of psychology, confusion is included in the “knowledge emotions”. These are “a family of emotional states that foster learning, exploring, and reflecting” and include surprise, interest, confusion and awe. “As a group, the knowledge emotions motivate people to engage with new and puzzling things rather than avoid them,” Silvia explains. “Over time, engaging with new things, ideas, and people broadens someone’s experiences and cultivates expertise. The knowledge emotions thus don’t gear up the body like fear, anger, and happiness do, but they do gear up the mind.”
Silvia explains confusion as “what happens when people are learning something that is both unfamiliar and hard to understand”. And while many assume that confusion leads to frustration and tuning out whatever is causing it, it actually can motivate “impasse-driven learning”. Essentially, our brains are stimulated, and we start paying closer attention to try to work out the issue that we didn’t understand. Studies have also shown that when it comes to students, they gain a deeper understanding of topics that initially perplex them after having to work through confusion.
We all know what confusion feels like, but most of us know what it looks like too. Maybe you furrow or scrunch your eyebrows, tilt your head and purse or bite your lips. Some professors are even using these trademark looks of confusion on their students’ faces to provide them with better learning resources. Researchers have developed artificial intelligence teaching and tutoring systems that “can detect expressions of confusion”. “When the AI system detects confusion, it can ask questions and give hints that help the student work through the problem.”
As humans, we tend to seek comfort in knowing as much as we can. About the future, about the past and often, about everyone in our lives too because we’re nosy. What seems fitting in this piece is that the topics of humor and what’s considered funny are as perplexing to scientists as the images in this list are to us. The Scientific American published piece titled “What’s So Funny? The Science of Why We Laugh” exploring the intriguing subject of humor and theorizing about what exactly makes us laugh.
In his article, Giovanni Sabato mentions several possible explanations for what humans consider funny. The first is “superiority and relief”. This idea, which dates back to Plato and other Greek philosophers, is the idea that “people find humor in, and laugh at, earlier versions of themselves and the misfortunes of others because of feeling superior”. Later, the theory of “release” emerged. Freud popularized this idea that we laugh to release “pent-up nervous energy”. Another theory, which aligns with the deadpan discussion above, is that “people laugh at the juxtaposition of incompatible concepts and at defiance of their expectations”.
The explanations above raise valid points, but they leave too many holes when trying to explain humor scientifically. It would be impossible to accurately test these hypotheses, and they do not account for all types of humor. A more recent theory came from the 2011 book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew M. Hurley. Hurley’s theory is that “people derive amusement from finding discrepancies between expectations and reality when the discrepancies are harmless, and this pleasure keeps us looking for such discrepancies”. “Moreover, laughter is a public sign of our ability to recognize discrepancies. It is a sign that elevates our social status and allows us to attract reproductive partners.” Yet, psychologists were not satiated by this explanation either. As a review of the book mentioned, “Why does our appreciation of humor and enjoyment change depending on our mood or other situational conditions?”
While scientists still have not agreed on a clear answer of what causes us to find things humorous, that’s no reason to stop yourself from laughing at harmless, inexplicably funny photos. If this list prompted you to say “hmmm” or scrunch your eyebrows, be sure to upvote the images you found the most bewildering. Feel free to sit in your confusion, and let your imagination wonder how these images came to be. Then let us know in the comments which pictures you found the most intriguing!