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
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
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.
In second place
Humour across the globe
It's all about timing
The brain's funnybone
Images and soundclips