Going to a comedy club is definitely a pleasurable experience, and when the comedians are extremely funny the pleasure is that much better. Scientists from the cognition and brain sciences unit of the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom have studied the brain’s response to humor and have found that the brain’s reward centers are activated by jokes. The results of their research was published online in the Journal of Neuroscience. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to analyze the brain’s response to jokes and ordinary sentences in normal participants. Twelve volunteers were used in the study and were evaluated while listening to puns, or plays on words, jokes, and ordinary sentences. It was found that the left inferior temporal gyrus and the left inferior frontal gyrus are involved in language comprehension, which confirms previously understood principles. It was also found that these brain locations as well as the temporoparietal junction bilaterally are involved in the processing of jokes and other humorous material. The researchers found that processing jokes and humorous material causes increased activity in a network of subcortical regions, including the amygdala, the ventral striatum, and the midbrain. These regions of the brain have been previously thought to be involved in the reward and pleasure experiencing centers of the brain. The more humorous the jokes were perceived to be by the study participants, the more activity was measured using fMRI. The researchers wrote, “These results allow a more precise account of how the neural and cognitive processes that are involved in ambiguity resolution contribute to the appreciation of jokes that depend on semantic ambiguity”. The researchers have stated that the results of the study could one day be used to determine if patients in a vegetative state respond to humor and possibly show that they still have cognition.
Tristan A. Bekinschtein et al. “Why Clowns Taste Funny: The Relationship between Humor and Semantic Ambiguity” J. Neurosci. 29 June 2011 31(26) 9665-9671.