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The brain's funnybone

Towards the end of the LaughLab project, we carried out a brain scan (using a technique known as Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of people listening to some of our best jokes. The results show that there are areas of the brain involved in understanding why a joke is funny.

As shown in the image below, this area is mainly located towards the back of the frontal lobes. Interestingly, this fits in with other research suggesting that people who have damaged this part of the brain often lose their sense of humour.

But why should this section of the brain be so important to our sense of humour?

Most jokes work because they surprise us – they set us thinking in one direction, and then we hear the punchline and realise that there is a completely different way of seeing the situation.

For example, take the old joke:

Two fish in a tank.
One turns to the other and says ‘Do you know how to drive this?’

The first line makes us think the fish are in a fish tank – then the second makes us realise that they actually are in an army tank!

The part of the brain shown in the image above (called the Prefrontal cortex) plays a vital role in the type of flexible thinking needed to understand a joke. It makes sense of the punchline and produces a strong sense of surprise.

In the NMI scanner we presented people with the initial part of jokes and then the punchlines, and compared activity in their brains with them simply reading unfunny sentences. The results were clear - the punchlines caused lots of activation in the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain - without this part of the brain we simply wouldn't find jokes funny.



The winning joke

In second place

Humour across the globe

It's all about timing

The brain's funnybone

Freudian funnies

Superiority theory

Incongruity theory

Images and soundclips

Fun facts

Tech stuff