LOL: The Neuroscience of Humor
Through television shows, memes, tweets and conversation, people are finding ways to make others laugh. With witty puns and tactful punchlines, people experience “AHA!” moments that then cause them to chuckle. Our brains are able to parse images, text, and auditory information for humorous content. A number of studies have been conducted on how the brain does this, as well as differences in understanding humor among different groups of people. Many studies have examined sex differences, as well as hemispheric contributions to humor.
Arrows and O’s: How Sex Influences Humor
A number of studies have been done on how men and women process humor (Azim et al. 2005, Kohn et al. 2011, Chang, Ku, & Chen 2018). Both sexes use a similar neural network to comprehend humor: the temporal lobes, the temporal-occipital junction, and the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) (Azim et al. 2005).
Further research has examined dorsal and ventral streams of humor processing. In regards to sex, Kohn et al. (2011) found that men use both a dorsal and ventral processing stream to understand and respond to humor, but women rely more heavily on the ventral stream. The ventral stream encompasses important brain regions, such as the amygdala, insula, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). EEG studies like Chang, Ku, and Chen (2018) show brain-wave differences between the two sexes, revealing a more automated processing of jokes for men and a strong cognitive-emotional process for women.
What does this mean?
For processing, it means that men and women rely on different mechanisms to process humor. Men use an evaluative-automatic approach to processing humor, while women use an interwoven cognitive-emotional approach (Kohn et al., 2011 & Chang, Ku, and Chen, 2018). These processing differences between both sexes are also informative of the kinds of humor that appeal to both sexes.
Researchers have found that humor with sexual or violent content appeals more to men than women. For women, content that contains nonsensical or absurd humor is more amusing (Brodzinsky et al., 1981). These differences mean that men and women will find different sources of humor “funny”, and that certain comedians, shows, and sources of humor will appeal to one sex more than the other.
Doing Splits: How Both Sides of Your Brain Help You “Get the Joke”
We use both sides of our brain everyday to interpret meaning from text, images, and conversation. Information is processed rather seamlessly, but damage to the brain on either side can interfere with how we process humor. Depending on the location of damage, a joke may be rather one-sided to the teller.
I Don’t Get It?
You may say this to the joke made at the bottom of the last paragraph if you are a patient with left-hemisphere damage. The left hemisphere is highly involved in language processing: syntax, semantics, and word recognition occur in the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere on the other hand, contributes to comprehension of non-literal speech like idioms. Common phrases such as “cut to the chase” or “spill the beans” are difficult for people with RHD, as these phrases have meaning beyond their actual words.
While studies have shown the two hemispheres work together to comprehend and interact with language differently, both hemispheres are needed to fully “get the joke”. Svebak (1982) found that the right hemisphere was more dominant in emotion processing than the left, but that both hemispheres were equally active when humor was well received and made someone laugh. Measured with EEG, Svebak uncovered the dual processing of humor – that both hemispheres engage when we find something particularly funny causing us to laugh.
What is the Punchline?
It takes two to tango! (See what I did there? XD). We use both of our hemispheres to process the many jokes, idioms, expressions, and visual depictions of humor. If we have damage to the left side of our brain, we lose the ability to comprehend and understand language. If we have damage to the right side of our brain, we may understand language, but get confused when someone says something that doesn’t really mean what they are saying. You need your whole brain to understand the punchline, and communicate with your amygdala for some dopamine and laughter.
- Azim, E., Mobbs, D., Jo, B., Menon, V., & Reiss, A. L. (2005). Sex differences in brain activation elicited by humor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(45), 16496–16501. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0408456102
- Bartolo, A., Benuzzi, F., Nocetti, L., Baraldi, P., & Nichelli, P. (2006). Humor Comprehension and Appreciation: An fMRI Study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18(11), 1789–1798. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1789
- Chang, Y.-T., Ku, L.-C., & Chen, H.-C. (2018). Sex differences in humor processing: An event-related potential study. Brain and Cognition, 120, 34–42. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2017.11.002
- Cristen Conger “Is there a scientific formula for funny?” 7 June 2011. HowStuffWorks.com. Article here. Found 13 Dec 2019.
- Kohn, N., Kellermann, T., Gur, R., Schneider, F., & Habel, U. (2011). Gender differences in the neural correlates of humor processing: Implications for different processing modes. Neuropsychologia, 49(5), 888–897. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.02.010
- Koleva, K., Mon-Williams, M., & Klepousniotou, E. (2019). Right hemisphere involvement for pun processing – Effects of idiom decomposition. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 51, 165–183. doi: 10.1016/j.jneuroling.2019.02.002
- Svebak, S. The effect of mirthfulness upon amount of discordant right-left occipital EEG alpha. Motivation and Emotion, 1982, 6, 133-143.