Your Brain on Jokes (The American Scholar)

“I saw a bank that said ’24 Hour Banking,’ but I didn’t have that much time.” So says the comedian to make people laugh. But what’s happening in the brain to both enable the joke and induce a mirthful response? Neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak breaks this process down in an article for The American Scholar, by basically explaining that all humor plays with our “scripts,” or our hypotheses about the world and how it works.

“Because our scripts are so generalized and compressed, we tend to make unwarranted assumptions based on them. Humor takes advantage of this tendency,” he says. “The process of reacting to and appreciating  humor begins with the activation of a script in the brain’s temporal lobes,” which are involved in the retention of memories, comprehending language and deriving meaning.

Our brain’s big frontal lobes make sense of the discrepancy between the script and the joke, making us the only animal able to do this kind of mental juggling. Successful humor also activates our subcortical network, which mediates reward or pleasure.

To be funny, our brain activity must switch from the dorsolateral frontal area, responsible for self-monitoring and self-criticism, to the medial frontal area, which is associated with spontaneous creative efforts. In other words, you have to resist the temptation to self-criticize, says Restak, if you want your timing, delivery and presentation to work.

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