Laugh Yourself Better

Humour activates our brains and enhances our well-being perhaps more than anything else

Adam Piore Published Nov 23, 2020 00:00:00 IST
Laugh Yourself Better E. B. White once wrote, “Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.” That might not be true after all. Photo credit: Matthew Cohen (glasses), Eric Isselee/Shutterstock (owl)

By day, Ori Amir is a mild-mannered 30-something college profess or. He teaches undergraduate psychology and neuroscience classes, conducts research into how the brain functions and holds regular office hours on the leafy campus of Pomona College in southern California.

But his students aren’t fooled. They’ve seen the YouTube videos, the ones that document his not-so-secret other life. In one of them, Amir is gripping a microphone and standing centre stage at the 1,400-seat Alex Theater in Glendale, California, wearing a striped rugby shirt, faded blue jeans, battered construction boots—and a ridiculously shaggy white fur coat. It’s the second night of the Glendale Laughs Comedy Festival, and Amir is grinning broadly at the audience through his ample beard, looking like a crazed six-foot-two redheaded Fozzie Bear.

“As you can tell by my accent, I’m a neuroscientist,” says Amir, who grew up in Israel. “They tell the professors at the university where I work to dress ‘business casual’. This is pretty much the best I can do. My wardrobe ranges from very casual to inappropriate.” Tonight, he’s wearing the full spectrum.

Amir likes to tell his audiences— and occasionally his students—that his dream is to become a “professional comedian and an amateur neurosurgeon.” (“That way I could cut up brains for fun!”) In fact, he has already managed to combine these seemingly unrelated passions. Amir is one of the leading researchers studying the way the brain creates and understands humour. Unless you happen to be a neuroscientist who moonlights as a comedian, that speciality might seem trivial compared with other fields of cognition. But the question of why we find things funny has fascinated philosophers for centuries.

This is a particularly exciting time for Amir and his fellow humour researchers. It has been only in the past few years that scanning technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have let us see how the brain works when it is processing information: which parts do what and what benefits might accrue from exercising different areas. It turns out that joking, long dismissed by some as a frivolous diversion from the serious business of reality, may make us smarter and healthier. There is even some evidence that a sense of humour helps the human species survive.

To understand why humour is a kind of superfood for the brain, it helps to know what our brains crave in the first place. You might think they’d prefer when we sit alone in a room and stare at a blank wall—we don’t burn up much energy doing that. But the brain is like a muscle, and it needs exercise. What gives the brain a workout? Information. When researchers asked people to look at a series of pictures while their brains were being scanned in an fMRI machine, it was the more complex images—a work of art, a sprawling vista, a group of animals—that tickled the neurons in their heads most.

It’s the activation of those neurons—nerve cells, which, among other things, send and receive sensory information—that ‘lights up’ the fMRI scans in bright, almost psychedelic colours. In fact, there is an almost drug-like effect taking place. The brain is filled with opioid receptors—yes, opioid, as in the drug. Made of specialized proteins, these receptors poke out of our neurons like tiny radio antennas designed to pick up passing signals. When the right kind of molecule bumps into a receptor—perhaps one of the body’s naturally occurring opioids, such as an endorphin, or a synthetic drug designed to look like one, such as heroin or morphine—it can kick off a cascade of brain activity that bathes the neurons in feel-good neurotransmitters and other chemicals. The more neurons that are activated (and the more activated they are), the more pleasure we feel. In essence, learning and problem-solving get us high.

Amir and his mentor, University of Southern California professor of neuroscience and psychology Irving Biederman, suspected that humour might feed the brain in much the same way that complex information does. People who study humour generally agree that most jokes are built around an incongruity—an inappropriate, absurd, surprising, or unusual combination of two fundamentally different ideas or elements. (To wit: a six-foot-two neuroscientist in a fluffy fur coat and scruffy construction boots.) When we first see or hear this mash-up, we’re confused. That’s the set-up. The punchline is the resolution of that confusion. (Oh, this is his idea of business casual!)

So in that sense, appreciating humour is not unlike solving a puzzle, and it yields a similar kind of satisfaction. Instead of an ‘aha’ moment, you get a ‘haha’ moment. In fact, Biederman and Amir theorized that because humour requires the brain to process lots of distinct types of information (Isn’t it too hot in Southern California to dress in so many layers? What is considered appropriate business attire? Is it ever OK to wear fur?), funny revelations would activate different and more disparate parts of the brain than unfunny ones. This would excite the neurons even more, which would lead to the release of more neurotransmitters and activation of the reward centres of the brain.

ori-amir_112220073455.jpgOri Amir takes his field of study seriously. When he’s not in the lab studying humour and the brain, he can be found performing stand-up comedy. Photograph by Miquel Gonzalez

To test their hypothesis, Amir and Biederman recruited 15 students to view 200 simple line drawings during an fMRI scan. Each drawing came with two captions: an ‘obvious’ description and an ‘interpretive’ one. For a picture with three T’s in a row, the obvious caption read ‘thick T-shaped junctions’. An interpretive caption might read ‘trumpet valves’, because the three T’s resemble the finger buttons on a trumpet.

Some of the interpretive captions were designed to be funny. On a drawing of two horizontal ovals wedged inside a vertical one, the obvious caption read ‘two smaller horizontal ellipses in a larger vertical ellipse’. The interpretive/funny description: ‘Close-up of a pig looking at book titles in a library’. (Think about it, or look at the drawing below.) For another drawing, ‘a plethora of dots surrounded concentrically around a single dot’ could be just that, or it could be ‘germs avoiding a friend who caught antibiotics’. The subjects were asked to rate each caption as ‘not funny’, ‘a little funny’ or ‘funny’.

As expected, the interpretive captions lit up more areas of the brain than their obvious counterparts—in line with the cognitive theory that insight in and of itself is pleasurable. But the scans revealed that humourous insights activated the most regions of all. The funnier the subjects rated a caption, the more neurons were fired. It is this extra burst of brain activation at the moment we ‘get’ a joke that transforms ‘aha’ into ‘haha’, Amir and Biederman concluded. What’s more, the opioid receptors they were studying are located in the higher-level processing areas of the temporal lobes, a patch of neural real estate running from roughly behind the ears up to the eyes, where we store the memories and associations we use to make sense of the world. They also have connections to neurons in the basal ganglia, the reward centre of the brain.

“We had come to think of these perceptual systems as relatively mundane structures meant simply to passively get us information,” Biederman says. “But it turns out that getting new information is actually pleasurable.” From there, the researchers took their analysis one step further. In a follow-up study, Amir recruited people to compose captions for a series of cartoons while he scanned their brains. When they came up with a joke, the same regions of the brain that light up when people appreciate humour were activated. And, as in the first study, the funnier the jokes (as rated by independent observers), the more neurons fired in the jokers’ brains.

But the firing of the brain cells occurred on a different timeline, enhancing the process and making it all the more powerful.

When we ‘get’ a joke, the neurons are activated in a quick burst. When we construct a joke, activity in the same brain regions increases slowly as we rack our brains for dissimilar elements that we can link. If appreciating humour is good exercise for our brains, then writing a joke is exercise on steroids.

Humour helps our cognition in less obvious ways too. Laughter is a natural stress reliever, and our brains work better when they aren’t slowed down by a fog of worry. In 2014, researchers in California demonstrated that elderly subjects who watched a funny video experienced significant improvements in their ability to learn and retain new information, possibly because the feelings of mirth reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that has been shown to hinder recall.

A good joke can function as a release valve for the whole body. “Humour can help reframe stressors, challenges or difficulties that seem insurmountable to a person,” says Tom Ford, a social psychologist at Western Carolina University and a co-author of The Psychology of Humor. “If one is able to make light of a stressor or challenge, then it doesn’t seem so big. It seems more manageable.”

Researchers in Hong Kong, for instance, demonstrated that when nursing-home patients with chronic pain enjoyed jokes, funny books and videos, and goofy singing and dancing on a weekly basis, their perception of pain and loneliness decreased significantly. They also felt happier and more satisfied with life. Others have demonstrated that laughter can be associated with increased blood flow, improved immune response, lower blood sugar levels and better sleep. You don’t have to write a joke to reap the benefits. Merely experiencing humour will do the trick. But there might be an even stronger reason that a sense of humour is hardwired into the human genome. Not only does humour make us smarter and healthier, but it may also make us more attractive to the opposite sex.

“There’s a gigantic study,” Biederman notes, “that’s been done in 38 cultures. It turns out that in every culture, both males and females desire their potential mates to be bright. But we don’t have our IQs tattooed on our forehead. How do we know that someone’s intelligent?” In Western cultures, at least, it’s often by the person’s sense of humour.

Because creating and appreciating jokes both require us to make connections between many discrete pieces of information, having a sense of humour demonstrates that we possess a wide breadth of knowledge and that we know how to think about it in novel and innovative ways. Take Amir’s and Biederman’s favourite cartoon, for example: A mouse is standing outside his house, having just pulled a gun on a cat, who is depicted with one paw raised in mock submission. “Six rounds. Nine lives. You do the math,” the cat says.

In order to appreciate this joke, you need to know that mice are usually the victims of cats, many revolvers have six bullets and cats are said to have nine lives because of their ability to always land on their feet. You also need to be able to subtract six from nine to understand that the cat has the upper hand (or paw, as the case may be) in this scene after all.

A University of New Mexico study of 400 college students found that those who scored highest on intelligence tests also scored high on humour ability—and they reported having more sex. This confirmed a wide body of literature that suggests that “humour is not just a reliable intelligence indicator ... but may be one of the most important traits for seeking human mates.” Being funny is not only a powerful sign of smarts; it also makes potential mates feel good. And by ensuring that only the cleverest, fittest and most creative people procreate, it helps safeguard the survival of the human race.

“Humour has several unique powers,” says Amir. “It forces people to consider different perspectives. It brings people together; if they are laughing together at something, they must agree with each other on some level. It reduces the pain associated with life’s difficulties. It exercises your brain. And it makes you happy.” If a healthy sense of humour can make you smarter, sexier and happier, then one thing is clear: Finding time in your day for a good joke or two is no laughing matter.

charlie-chaplin_112220073758.jpgIn The Champion, the guy on the right had the bigger weapon and mustache, but he was no match for Chaplin. Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

Charlie Chaplin’s Good Humour Theory

In a 1920 prototype of Reader’s Digest, film legend Charlie Chaplin shared the surprising minimalist craft that went into his Hollywood hits. “To make an audience roar is the ambition of many actors, but I prefer to spread the laughs out. It is much better when there is a continual ripple of amusement, with one or two big ‘stomach laughs’, than when an audience ‘explodes’ every minute or two. Restraint is a great word, not only for actors but also for everybody to remember. Restraint of tempers, appetites, desires, bad habits and so on, is a mighty good thing to cultivate.

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