How to be Funny: Get Out of Your Head

Originally published by Teodora Stoica on her Curious Cortex blog.

“Laughter is one of the great beacons in life because we don’t defract it by gunning it through our intellectual prism.” -Dennis Miller

The spontaneous chuckle erupting out of you requires creativity, attuned observation skills and precise timing on the behalf of the comedian. To make someone laugh, as another comedian puts it, “is a preposterous thing. I am forcing you to have an involuntary reaction to something I say.” Professional comedians (like Louis C.K.) are experts at combining these skills and generating humorous ideas for our enjoyment, and indeed — making us laugh. How is a joke set in motion within the brain networks of a professional humor maker?

Near Hollywood, at the University of Southern California, researchersrecruited promising improv and stand-up comics and compared their humor creativity to graduate students with no comedic experience in hopes of understanding how humor arises in the brain. Each participant was given cartoon drawings that originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine without any captions. While undergoing an MRI, they were cued to generate either a humorous caption, an expected caption or no caption. Immediately after, they rated how funny they thought the newly generated captions were. Lastly, a separate set of graduate students were asked to rate the humor of the captions, thus measuring both subjective and objective humor.

The intriguing results showed regions responsible for initial efforts of generating a humorous idea came online first: the bilateral striatum (part of the reward system), medial prefrontal cortex — mPFC (involved in creativity), temporal-occipital junction — TOJ (sensory information convergence zone), and visual cortex. Visual cortex involvement suggests the participants were looking for an incongruity in the drawing, likely the source of comedic inspiration.

Regions with higher activation in the Humor vs. Mundane Condition: STR — striatum; V1 — visual cortex; mPFC — medial prefrontal cortex; rTOJ — right temporal occipital junction; ITOJ — lateral temporal occipital junction.

Strikingly, these are the same regions known for getting a joke, but they activate on a different time course. Put another way,

Joke creation occurs only seconds before humor appreciation utilizes the same neural pathway.

Importantly, the temporal regions (and not mPFC) exhibited a funniness “dose response” in professional comedians: the funnier the caption, the stronger the activation. This was observed seconds earlier in the scan, suggesting it reflects the process of constructing the humorous caption, rather than its evaluation. Since this effect was not seen in amateurs, it’s possible professionals rely on rapid linking of information in temporal association areas, rather than deliberate searching of meaning within the mPFC.

In other words, humor creativity belongs in the same category as any other creative endeavor: pianists’ improvisation, creative writing, free style rap or skillful drawing. What they all have in common is getting out of your own head and allowing “flow” to take over.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, here’s someone who is totally out of their head:


About the Author

Teodora Stoica is a PhD student in Translational Neuroscience at the University of Louisville in the NILCAMP Lab under the mentorship of Dr. Brendan Depue. She is currently using neuroimaging techniques to explore complicated mechanisms of emotion and their relationship to hormones in the two genders. She has worked in neuroscience and psychology research for over five years, contributing to the scientific understanding of the brain at Yale University and University of Maryland, Baltimore. You can find her curriculum vitae here.

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