It’s a well-known fact by now that laughing out can instantly uplift your mood and improves the quality of your health, thereby potentially increase your mortality.1 It also makes the world seem like a happier place when times are particularly tough. But are you aware that there’s an actual scientific process that goes on in your brain when your funny bone is tickled?
Here’s the scoop on how comedy and the laughter that comes along with it, affects your mind and your body.
Joke Detection And Processing Is A Two-Part Affair
Dartmouth scientists hooked study participants up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and then made observations while playing episodes from ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Seinfeld.’2 While the participants didn’t really laugh out loud, the fMRI machine did give the scientists a preview into how the brain processed the comedic material, which turned out to be a two-part detection and appreciation process.
It was observed that joke detection took place in the left inferior frontal and posterior temporal cortices located on the left side of the brain. This side of the brain is responsible for picking out the unexpected information and then cross-referencing it to information that was stored previously in our memories.
This brain function helps us dissect and make better sense of jokes which are really nothing but situational contrasts and their unexpected resolutions. Once our brains have sorted out the content of the joke, the appreciation of this content happens in the insular cortex and amygdala, areas of the brain that help regulate our emotions.
In fact, different jokes activate different parts of the brain. For instance, cartoons fuel activity in the visual part of your brain, while spoken jokes trigger the auditory parts.’3 A study also found that people with frontal lobe damage found it harder to understand punch lines and prefer slapstick comedy that’s comparatively easier to process and laugh at.4
For Every Punchline, There’s A Reward!
It does seem like a long, complicated mental workout doesn’t it? This is why our brains are generous enough to offer us a reward. Every time your brain gets the joke, it deals out shots of the pleasure-inducing ‘happy hormone’ or dopamine via the amygdala.
This also explains why it’s so hard for us to laugh when we’re feeling blue.
Why Is It Hard To Laugh When You’re Sad?
There’s a section in your brain called the mesolimbic pathway, often referred to as the ‘reward pathway’. This part of your brain is highly dopaminergic, which means it releases or involves dopamine as a neurotransmitter. If the mesolimbic reward system turns off the dopamine valve, not only will this cause your mood to sink, but will also cause your sense of humor to drop in suit. If you do crack up, however, it’s because certain neurons called spindle cells help assist in all the monkey-business by transmitting emotions of happiness and delight across the brain.
Humor Does Not Have A Scientific Formula
Now that you’re aware of the neurological patterns that go into the processing of a joke by your brain, you’d automatically think finding the secret formula to humor is a no-brainer. All you have to do is figure out what elements delight which parts of the brain the most and spin yarns and yarns of comedy gold from there, right?
A 2004 study compared the humor pathways in the brain among male and female participants. As far as sorting through semantic knowledge and processing the language was concerned, the fMRI scans revealed that both sexes exhibited similar action in the temporal lobe region of their brains.5 However, the scans also discovered that the female brains spend a lot longer in delving deeper through the verbiage. They also had a more powerful mesolimbic or ‘reward’ response when they got the punch line.6
This study, though pretty small scale, still revealed that women possess different funny meters from those of men. Women may not laugh as quickly at a joke as men do, but if they do eventually get the joke and are genuinely amused, they laugh much harder than men do.
Note: For those of us who aren’t aware of what an fMRI machine does – here’s what you need to know. The machine basically observes and makes note of blood flow in the brain to pinpoint areas of activity. Changes in blood flow are captured on a computer which helps doctors understand the workings of the brain better.
|↑1||Strean, William B. “Laughter prescription.” Canadian Family Physician 55, no. 10 (2009): 965-967.|
|↑2||The anatomy of funny. American Psychological Association.|
|↑3||The anatomy of funny. American Psychological Association.|
|↑4||It’s no joke: Study identifies brain circuitry involved in our grasp of sarcasm. American Psychological Association.|
|↑5, ↑6||Azim, Eiman, Dean Mobbs, Booil Jo, Vinod Menon, and Allan L. Reiss. “Sex differences in brain activation elicited by humor.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102, no. 45 (2005): 16496-16501.|