The Neuroscience of Jokes


“A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes have rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his mobile phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator, in a soothing voice, says: ‘Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: ‘OK, now what?’”
—Dr. Richard Wiseman

The foregoing was ranked as the world’s funniest joke after “almost two million people voted on 40,000 of them from 70 countries.” Despite its accolade as the most humorous joke in the world, whether you laughed aloud or raised an eyebrow is a subjectively determined experience. However, there are some findings that suggest there are some universal elements involved in the science of comedy.

To begin with, humans are not the only species that engages in the act of laughter. Numerous primate species laugh, most often as a result of tickling (or even when teased with the possibility of being tickled). Researchers can’t say for sure why primates laugh so readily, but as Cristen Conger states, “Some think, from an evolutionary standpoint, primates started laughing to signal that a perceived threat wasn’t as dangerous as it seemed, while others link the laugh to teaching younger generations how to play and get along with each other.”

Indeed, laughter appears to be extremely socially driven. Dr. Robert Provine found that, “Laughter has more to do with social relationships than humor. People will laugh thirty times more when there are other people around than when alone.”

Of course, this is not to say that humor is incapable of eliciting laughter — on the contrary, it is often a crucial component. In a Dartmouth study in which participants viewed episodes of “Seinfield” and “The Simpsons” functional MRI revealed a two-part detection and appreciation process. The study found that “joke detection” occurred in the left inferior frontal and posterior temporal cortices. This area of the brain helps us to sort through novel and unexpected information, and relate it to information from our memories.

After our brains perceive the joke, our amygdalae release a spate of dopamine, and in turn, neurons called “spindle cells” further assist by transmitting the “funny” across the brain. More specialized types of humor activate other brain regions; for example, Broca’s area, a major part of your brain’s language control center, is involved with puns.

Successful humor often involves distorting our assumptions, and more specifically our “scripts” — which are “hypotheses about the world and how it works based on our previous life experiences.” Dr. Richard Restak explains that “It is the brain’s frontal lobes that make sense of the discrepancy between the script and the situation described by the joke or illustrated by the cartoon. This ability is unique to our species … We are the only creatures that possess a highly evolved working memory, which by creating and storing scripts allows us to appreciate sophisticated and subtle forms of humor.

“Neuroscientists often compare working memory to mental juggling. To appreciate a cartoon or a joke, you have to keep in mind at least two possible scenarios: your initial assumptions, created, and stored over a lifetime in the temporal lobes, along with the alternative explanations that are worked out with the aid of the frontal lobes.”

So regardless of whether you’re a fan of slapstick comedy or you prefer highbrow word play, your brain’s ability to detect (“get it”) — and appreciate (laugh at) a joke — are highly evolved and incredibly intricate.

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