In a recent study, scientists imaged the brain of volunteers who listened to jokes or non-jokes. The scientists also asked the subjects to complete a questionnaire to rate the level of "funniness" of what they heard. The results indicate that funny is not something that is localized to one structure in the brain. When what the subjects heard was funny, several dispersed structures in the brain were activated. Some of the structures like the amygdala, ventral striatum, and midbrain, are associated with the experience of positive reward. This means that "getting a joke" produces pleasure. The extent to which these areas were activated correlated with the subjective ratings of funniness that the participants ascribed to the jokes. The researchers could tell whether a person thought something was funny just by evaluating the increases in activity in these brain areas.
One interesting aspect of this study was the evaluation of jokes with semantic ambiguity. There is an area of the brain called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) that increases in activity when subjects are exposed to funny things. The IFG also becomes active when a person encounters semantic ambiguity. For example:
"What was the problem with the other coat? It was difficult to put on with the paint roller."
This sentence activates your IFG briefly because of the ambiguity associated with the word "coat" (a garment vs. a layer of paint). The IFG is a brain structure involved in resolving ambiguities. Now consider the following joke:
"Why don't cannibals eat clowns? Because they taste funny!"
When you listen to this joke, your IFG also becomes active in response to the ambiguity regarding the meaning of the word "funny" (odd or bad vs. amusing), but in this case the resolution of the ambiguity is more difficult than with the example about the coat. As a result of this your IFG remains active for a longer time. The authors of the study found that this increased activity of the IFG was an important component associated with the funniness of jokes with semantic ambiguity.
This study evaluated the neurological complexity behind something as seemingly mundane as finding a joke funny. Of course, when scientists study these processes they try to simplify things as much as possible to make them amenable to research. One aspect that was not evaluated is whether we find a joke funny when we are the object of the joke. For example if an author received a review of their book that stated:
"Your book was both good and original. Unfortunately the part that was good was not original and the part that was original was not good."
Would the author find that funny? I can't even begin to imagine how the brain scan would look!
What do you think? (Image courtesy of smokedsalmon)
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