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Mind

The NeuROFLscience of Jokes

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJuly 3, 2011 5:00 PM

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A new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience investigates the neural basis of humour:

Why Clowns Taste Funny.

The authors note that some things are funny because of ambiguous words. For example:

Q: Why don’t cannibals eat clowns?A: Because they taste funny!

Previous studies, apparently, have shown that these kinds of jokes lead to activation in the lIFG (left inferior frontal gyrus), although it's also involved in processing ambiguity that's not funny, and indeed, language in general.

In this study they gave people fMRI and played them audio clips of sentences that were either funny or not, and that either contained ambiguity or not. Examples of non-funny ambiguity included crackers like this:

Q: What happened to the post?A: As usual, it was given to the best-qualified applicant.

They found that, relative to straightforward ones, ambiguous sentences led to increased activation in two areas, the lIFG and also the left ITG. That fits with previous work.

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By contrast, funny stimuli, whether ambiguous or not, sent the brain into overdrive, with humour causing activation all over a wide range of hilarious areas such as the amygdala, ventral striatum, hypothalamus, temporal lobes and more.

Many of these areas are known to be involved in emotion and pleasure, although some are fairly random such as visual area BA19.

There were strong associations between BOLD signal change and funniness in the midbrain, the left ventral striatum, and the left anterior and posterior IFG.

The problem is, like so many neuroimaging studies, it's not clear what this adds to our understanding of the topic. All this really shows is that linguistic ambiguity activates language areas, and enjoyable stimuli activate pleasure areas (amongst many others); it doesn't tell us why some things are funny.

So more research is needed, and future neuro-humour studies will need a new set of neuro-jokes in order to maximize the laughs. Here's a few I came up with:

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?A :Because of activation in the motor cortex, causing muscle contractions in his legs.

Q: What neuroimaging methodology is most useful for studying the brains of cats and dogs?A: PET scanning.

Knock knock.Who's there?John.I doubt that. The 'self' is an illusion. The concept of 'John' as an individual is incompatible with modern neuroscience.

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Bekinschtein TA, Davis MH, Rodd JM, & Owen AM (2011). Why Clowns Taste Funny: The Relationship between Humor and Semantic Ambiguity. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31 (26), 9665-71 PMID: 21715632

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