The act of laughing at a joke is the result of a two-stage process in the brain, first detecting an incongruity before then resolving it with an expression of mirth. The brain actions involved in understanding humour differ between young boys and girls. These are the conclusions reached by a US-based scientist supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Since science has demonstrated that animals are also capable of planning into the future, the once deep cleft between the brain capacities of humans and animals is rapidly disappearing. Fortunately, we can still claim humour as our unique selling point. This makes it even more astonishing that researchers have considered this attribute but fleetingly (and have spent much more time on negative emotions such as fear), write the Swiss neuroscientist Pascal Vrticka and his US colleagues at Stanford University, in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Strangely cheerful feelings
In their recently published article, the researchers demonstrate that, while laughter at a joke requires activity in many different areas of the brain, just two separate elements can be identified among the complex patterns of activity. In the first part, the brain detects a logical incongruity, which, in the second part, it proceeds to resolve. The ensuing feeling of cheerfulness arises from a brain activity that can be clearly differentiated from that of other positive emotions.
Moreover, in the study of 22 children aged between six and thirteen, the research team led by Vrticka showed that sex-specific differences in the processing of humour are formed early on in life. The researchers recorded the children's brain activity while they were enjoying film clips that were either funny – slapstick home video – or entertaining – such as clips of children break-dancing. On average, the girls' brains responded more to the funny scenes, while the boys showed greater reaction to the entertaining clips.
Benefits of improved understanding
Vrticka speculates that these sex-based differences could play a role in helping women to select a suitable (and humorous) mate. Aside from this, humour also plays a key role in psychological health. This is demonstrated, among other things, in the fact that adults with psychological disorders such as autism or depression often have a modified humour processing activity and respond less markedly to humour than people who do not have these disorders. Vrticka believes that an improved understanding of the processes that take place in our brain when we enjoy the effects of an amusing joke could be of great benefit in the development of treatments.
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Pascal Vrticka, Jessica M. Black and Allan L. Reiss (2013). The Neural Basis of Humor Processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, online. DOI: 10.1038/nrn3566