The Neuroscience of Humour
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
I’ve always admired comedians. In fact, I admire them so much that one day I had a conversation with one of my best friends thinking of becoming one and it went something like this –
“Hey, I’m just thinking… I really like doing public talks, I love doing my science presentations for class-work and of course I love comedy. So, why don’t I try getting into stand-up comedy – it’ll be perfect”.
To which my friend replied -
“Shivam, it’s absolutely perfect! Except for one little thing though… you’re not really funny”.
So, instead of being a comedian that isn’t funny, I thought I’d write this little blog on the neuroscience of humour so that even I can understand why I like it so much.
Let’s start with this. The amygdala, a spherical cherry shaped brain region about which you would have heard for several reasons. Could be emotional processing, phobias, memory modulation or as something that influences decision-making. Its overall function, however, is to perform as a key player when it comes to salience detection. Our brains are subject to oceans of sensory information, but it is the amygdala that allows us to focus on the specific and relevant depths of the ocean in a given context. In other words, it is filtering all our sensory inputs to the brain and detecting those that are most relevant to us at a given time. For example, detecting a lion running towards you and your friend is much more important than detecting the colour of your friend’s t-shirt.
And remarkably, when humour is presented to us, this exact brain region shows an increased activation!
What this may imply is that to the brain, humour is quite possibly an important part of the sensory information that we receive. This obviously depends on the context. If that lion is chasing you and you somehow find that funny and just stand there and laugh, something may not be right there. But in our everyday and relatively safe (or boring) lives, humour matters. On top of this, humour also engages other brain regions including some of our reward and executive functioning dopaminergic pathways known as the mesolimbic and the mesocortical pathways, respectively.
Ultimately, it really is a no brainer (pun intended) that humour is rewarding. There is a reason why we pay a good amount of money to watch comedy shows or even express favouritism towards the employee that is rather funny.
But now let’s sail this blog towards asking the why question. Why is it that something like humour can be rewarding and be detected as something salient in our everyday lives? While there are several answers to this question – a big one is in fact improving our mental health. This was suggested by a study in 1998 which showed that when a humour intervention was used in residential homes for the elderly, there was a significant improvement in their quality of life with signs of reduced anxiety and depression. Further to this, patients suffering from schizophrenia have attenuated humour perception and this could contribute to their array of cognitive symptoms.
Today, there are key studies being performed by several lab groups including the Reiss Lab in Stanford University where the neural underpinnings of humour are studied much further, and humour therapies are being designed to reduce some of the mental health symptoms. This is a really cool area which may compliment some of the interventions already in place such as cognitive behaviour therapy. In a way, this shows how some scientists are getting really creative when it comes to managing mental illness and studying their possible root cause to find the perfect combination of the most effective treatments for an individual.
If there is one thing to take away from all this, it is that humour helps is some way when it comes to improving mental health. And in a world where stress, competition and complexity are only increasing and contributing to our poor mental health, one could use some humour from time to time. As one of my favourite comedian, Ricky Gervais, points out towards the end of his “Humanity” special on Netflix –
“If you can laugh in the face of adversity, you are bullet-proof."