The Funny Factor

Reader's Digest, September 2006

Two worms sit on a couch at a party. The male worm smiles suggestively and chats up the female. Nearby, two other male worms cast the couple a sidelong glance. "You gotta check this out, Stuart," one says. "Vinnie's over on the couch, putting the moves on Zelda Schwartz -- but he's talkin' to the wrong end."

John Allman, PhD, laughs quietly as he reads the caption of this Far Side cartoon. The neuroscientist from California Institute of Technology is lying inside a dark, clanking metal cylinder, watching Gary Larson's drawing on a screen. His legs protrude from the machine into a windowless basement laboratory on the Caltech campus. In the control room next door, Karli Watson, a graduate student, sits at the console, which controls the MRI scanner into which Allman is inserted. As Allman gets the joke, Watson is taking readings of his brain. Welcome to humor research, circa 2006.

What's So Funny?

Humor is so clearly central to the human adventure that it's surprising how little attention science has paid it until recently, preferring instead to tackle weightier subjects like global warming, earth-menacing asteroids and the dangers of trans fats in Girl Scout cookies. "No one takes humor seriously," jokes Ed Dunkelblau, PhD, a psychologist, humor consultant and former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. Nonetheless, Allman and a smattering of other scientists have forged bravely ahead, to the occasional consternation of their more earnest colleagues, probing minds and brains to find our funny bones.

And they're finding them, buried deep in our gray matter. Humor, it turns out, is a whole-brain experience, with networks of brain parts -- call them "humor muscles" -- passing signals quickly and efficiently to help us get a joke. We need relatively few of those muscles to comprehend simple slapstick like that in The Three Stooges, which requires us only to chortle when Moe pokes Curly in the eye. But complex humor, such as the jokes, cartoons and funny stories in Reader's Digest, puts more of our brains to work.

Today, using the tools of neuroscience (functional MRI machines, PET scans and statistics) and psychology (questionnaires, psychology students and more statistics), researchers like Allman are beginning to understand exactly how our brain's humor muscles figure out what's funny, and how exercising them may sharpen our minds. They aren't saying that regular helpings of jokes or Adam Sandler movies will qualify us all for Mensa. But a growing body of research suggests that humor can tune our minds, help us learn, and keep us mentally loose, limber and creative.

Flexing Your Humor Muscles

The scientific hunt for the brain's humor muscles begins with (what else?) an academic hypothesis of humor. It's called incongruity, and it's a widely accepted idea about how humor works. For example, take this joke (please): Why won't sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy.

The punch line makes no sense at first and briefly trips us up. That's incongruity. To get the joke, we rifle through our mental files on language, syntax and social know-how. Then, in a flash, we mentally shift gears and see the story in a new light. We delight in the surprising logic, especially if it reveals a rarely spoken truth about human nature. Then we laugh. We do all that in a fraction of a second -- no mean feat, even by the high standards of the human brain.

Neuroscientists suspect that separate humor muscles are responsible for each of these mental tasks. By exercising them, we learn and develop. "Each humor event you experience makes you grow a little bit -- as the brain has expanded and taken on new connections," explains William Fry, MD, a pioneering humor researcher and professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.

In studying patients with brain injuries, neurologists came to suspect that the right frontal lobe was critical for appreciating what's comical. In 1999, Donald Stuss, PhD, and Prathiba Shammi, PhD, two neuropsychologists at Baycrest, a hospital and research institute in Toronto, tested that idea. They identified 21 patients with damage limited to either their right frontal lobes or another brain region; then they had the patients read humorous statements. (Example: A sign in a Hong Kong tailor's shop read "Please have a fit upstairs." Another example: A sign in a Tokyo hotel read "Guests are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.")

Only patients with a damaged right prefrontal cortex didn't get the humor at all. The patients still appreciated the slapstick, though. All this means is that the right frontal humor muscle is exercised only during so-called thoughtful forms of humor.

To locate other humor muscles, neuroscientists like Allman have recently begun placing healthy people in functional MRI scanners, then showing them cartoons or television sitcoms. The scans reveal blood flow to several different brain regions, which shows how hard they're working.

Your Brain on Ha-Ha

Other brain-scan results are painting a new picture of the brain's humor system. Here's how scientists think it works: When you hear a joke, a language center on the left side of your brain makes sense of the words, then sends the message across to the right side of the brain. There, the right frontal cortex delves into regions including those that store emotions and social memories, then shuffles the information until it clicks and you get the joke. Next, a structure deep in the brain pumps out dopamine, a "reward system" chemical that makes you feel good, and a primitive region near the base of your skull makes you laugh.

At Caltech, Allman and Watson discovered an important new humor muscle by scanning Allman's brain, as well as those of 19 other people. Inside the scanner, each subject viewed 47 Far Side cartoons and 53 New Yorker cartoons, while pushing buttons on a handheld device to rate how funny each was. The results suggested for the first time how humor might change our brain to sharpen our intuition. Allman and Watson had already focused on two parts of the frontal lobe that work when we react intuitively. The results of the experiment, which were published in March in the journal Cerebral Cortex, showed that the funnier the subjects rated the cartoon, the harder those two brain parts worked.

But the same two regions also activate when we experience complex emotions, such as love, lust and guilt. Since both intuition and emotions come into play when we make social decisions, Allman suspects that the two new humor muscles play a role in the fast, intuitive (and sometimes wrong) judgments we routinely make about others.

Allman believes that complex humor may actually recalibrate our intuition, allowing us to make better social decisions. "I think we've hit upon the mechanism of that," he says. If so, then lightening up could keep our hunches on target.

Don't Forget This!

Meanwhile, psychologists have come up with other reasons to look for the lighter side of life. For starters, humor can improve memory. That's what advertisers have long suspected. "Otherwise, you would never have a lizard selling insurance or a dog selling beer," Dunkelblau says.

But there was little hard evidence until 1994, when psychologist Stephen Schmidt, PhD, of Middle Tennessee State University had 38 psychology undergraduates read sentences like this one: "There are three ways a man can wear his hair: parted, unparted and departed." He also had them read straight versions of the same sentences: "Men can wear their hair with or without a part, unless they are bald." The students remembered the funny sentences, and words from those sentences, better than they recalled the unfunny ones.

Ron Berk, PhD, a psychologist who taught statistics at Johns Hopkins University, has put such knowledge to work in the classroom, using jokes, funny examples, sight gags and skits. Each semester he'd untuck his shirt, put a cigar in his mouth and a baseball cap on his head, and show up to his statistics class with an impeccably dressed, somewhat formal female colleague. "I'm Oscar and this is Felice, and we're going to talk about relationships," he said, as the theme from The Odd Couple played. The students laughed because their professors looked ridiculous. But as they listed the couple's similarities and differences, the humor helped them learn an important statistical concept.

Berk has published a series of studies showing that sharing a laugh helps students learn more. Even funny test directions helped students do significantly better on an otherwise identical exam, according to a study Berk did that will be published later this year. He also detailed his unorthodox teaching methods in a book, Humor as an Instructional Defibrillator.

Gettin' More Creative


Humor can also loosen up our minds, allowing us to play around with ideas and be more creative. That's according to years of psychological studies, many of which got people to laugh, then asked them to come up with creative things to do with a brick. After years of brick studies, psychologists were still skeptical, so in 1987, Alice Isen, PhD, a professor of psychology and management at Cornell University, began using what she says is a better measure of creativity: She challenged undergraduates to nail a burning candle to a corkboard.

More specifically, Isen and her co-workers gave subjects a candle, a book of matches, a box of tacks and ten minutes, and told them to attach the candle to the wall without dripping any wax. People who were not amused spent most of their time trying repeatedly to tack the candle to the corkboard. "That won't work because the candle is too thick," Isen says. "Besides, the wall would catch fire."

But subjects who had just watched funny outtakes from old TV shows were more than three times as likely to find the correct, and creative, answer: Dump the tacks from the box, tack the box to the corkboard, and use the attached box as a candle holder.

Last year, Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found similar results when she showed subjects either videos of comical waddling penguins or neutral videos of sticks. The amused penguin watchers were more likely to think broadly. These results have convinced psychologists that amusement and other positive feelings make people think more flexibly and try more novel alternatives when solving a problem.

All this suggests that by enjoying humor, playing and exploring, we can better understand ourselves, others and the world we live in. What's more, those changes last, and help us during hard times. So limber up your mind and wise up by having a laugh. Hey, did you hear the one about the two worms at a party?