Establishing the basis of humour

December 11, 2013

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 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 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.

Explore further: Humour styles and bullying in schools: Not a laughing matter

More information: Pascal Vrticka, Jessica M. Black and Allan L. Reiss (2013). The Neural Basis of Humor Processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, online. DOI: 10.1038/nrn3566

Related Stories

Humour styles and bullying in schools: Not a laughing matter

May 2, 2013
There is a clear link between children's use of humour and their susceptibility to being bullied by their peers, according to a major new study released today by Keele University.

Connections in the brains of young children strengthen during sleep, study finds

November 20, 2013
While young children sleep, connections between the left and the right hemispheres of their brain strengthen, which may help brain functions mature, according to a new study by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Imaging study shows how humor activates kids' brain regions

February 1, 2012
For the first time, researchers have scanned the brains of children watching funny videos to examine which of their brain regions are active as their sense of humor develops. The new findings from the Stanford University ...

A single spray of oxytocin improves brain function in children with autism

December 2, 2013
A single dose of the hormone oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, has been shown to enhance brain activity while processing social information in children with autism spectrum disorders, Yale School of Medicine researchers ...

Recommended for you

The neural codes for body movements

July 21, 2017
A small patch of neurons in the brain can encode the movements of many body parts, according to researchers in the laboratory of Caltech's Richard Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Tianqiao and Chrissy ...

Faulty support cells disrupt communication in brains of people with schizophrenia

July 20, 2017
New research has identified the culprit behind the wiring problems in the brains of people with schizophrenia. When researchers transplanted human brain cells generated from individuals diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia ...

Scientists reveal how patterns of brain activity direct specific body movements

July 20, 2017
New research by Columbia scientists offers fresh insight into how the brain tells the body to move, from simple behaviors like walking, to trained movements that may take years to master. The discovery in mice advances knowledge ...

Scientists discover combined sensory map for heat, humidity in fly brain

July 20, 2017
Northwestern University neuroscientists now can visualize how fruit flies sense and process humidity and temperature together through a "sensory map" within their brains, according to new research.

Team traces masculinization in mice to estrogen receptor in inhibitory neurons

July 20, 2017
Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have opened a black box in the brain whose contents explain one of the remarkable yet mysterious facts of life.

Speech language therapy delivered through the Internet leads to similar improvements as in-person treatment

July 20, 2017
Telerehabilitation helps healthcare professionals reach more patients in need, but some worry it doesn't offer the same quality of care as in-person treatment. This isn't the case, according to recent research by Baycrest.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2013
These studies aren't worth much. The assumption that humour is entertaining or that humour is based on jokes and other such assumptions are implicitly made and then acted upon. If it were an argument we'd call it a straw man.

Humour can be aggressive or even murderous. Laughing at another's misfortune, as in funny videos is one side, causing the misfortune, as in 'practical jokes' is another.

The old paradigm for humour is a person about to tread on a banana skin. Where is the "logical incongruity, which, in the second part, it proceeds to resolve"??? The outcome is known by the person who will be amused well ahead of the event.

Practical jokes may be planned months ahead.

Taking just one property of humour and deciding that one can study that in isolation is like observing that lung cancer is a common form of cancer and so going ahead and studying lungs and claiming to be studying cancer.

The common thread is not "logical incongruity" and thousands of counterexamples show.
not rated yet Jan 08, 2014
I'm wondering what kind of low life anonymously gives scores of 1/5 to a perfectly accurate commentary and gives no reason for it?

Are they saying that humour can not be aggressive, as in practical humour, the humour of the laughing murderer/torturer/rapist, sadists etc etc etc etc???

The usual one dimensional view of human effective states or behaviours is to take a single, prominent or popular (especially in movies and other fiction) aspect and study that instead of the actual phenomena claimed to have been studied, which is usually very complicated and highly connected with other effective states.

It is hardly surprising that actual effective states and behaviours (such as humour) have this mind bogglingly complex nature as the brain is very interconnected & does not have discrete areas of processing like a computer eg there are 10x as many neurons impacting on the earliest visual processing areas of the brain from higher brain areas (especially the neocortex) than from retina.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.