The Science Behind Laughter and What Tickles Our Funny Bone

Ilya Leybovich Writer, KBS

New scientific research and sophisticated technologies reveal the deeper purposes and possibilities of humor. 

Comedian Mitch Hedberg once observed that comedy clubs often put performers in front of brick backgrounds, which is why he says he’s hilarious whenever he stands near a fireplace.

As unfunny as that may be, his joke points to an interesting question: if it’s not the bricks that make something funny, what is?

Humor can be the world’s most powerful binding agent. It builds a sense of community through shared delight, reminds people about the common ground between them, and inspires humans to connect with one another in ways both meaningful and frivolous.


“One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.” – Groucho Marx

The ability to understand a joke reflects the most essential characteristics of the human brain. So what is a joke, exactly?

According to cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, author of “Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why,” a joke is a side path, an unplanned detour on our way to a destination.

“We often use a computer analogy that explains the brain as an input and output system, but it’s far messier than that,” Weems told iQ.

“The brain is not a linear processor and it doesn’t work out problems from A to B to C. The brain is so good at taking wrong turns, and that’s essentially what humor is.”

He said funny happens when an outcome differs from an expectation.

The same holds true for other activities. When we’re reading, we’re already thinking about what the next word is going to be before we get to it, and in social situations we subconsciously create short-term predictions for how others will behave.

“We’re expectation-building machines, trying to stay one step ahead of where we are,” said Weems. “Because we’re always doing that, we’re creating the perfect environment for a joke. We build an expectation and when it’s violated or proven false the brain is quick to appreciate that.”

This appreciation comes in chemical form.

When a joke lands, it activates the reward centers of the brain, releasing dopamine and stimulating opioid activity.

According to Weems, appreciating a joke elicits the same physical response as solving a problem: we’re receiving a reward for figuring something out. These neural effects become more intense when you’re the one making the joke.

Ori Amir, a researcher at the University of Southern California, conducted one of the first functional MRI-based imaging studies that looked at the brain during active humor creation.

For the study, subjects crafted captions for a series of pictures. The results indicated that activity in the reward centers was stronger and triggered earlier when people wrote funnier captions.

“In the case of the pleasure regions, it gives a neural basis for the common comedy-coach dictum: ‘Have fun and you will be funnier,’” Amir told iQ.

A key part of the USC study was comparing brain activity between comedians and regular people during joke writing. The findings showed that professional comics have brains that actually function differently from the general populace.


“Professional comedians have greater activity in temporal association regions when generating punch lines, but less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, suggesting they rely more on the organic flow of associations in the search for funny,” Amir explained.

Interestingly, Amir’s research found that the reward regions in comedians’ brains are activated less strongly than in non-comedians. He gave two possible explanations for this: either comedians are a bit more depressive about their jokes, or their brains need less of a powerful signal to generate something funny.

The next time you’re looking for a pick-me-up, skip the bar and try writing a joke instead.

“The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades.” – Demetri Martin

The appreciation of humor is about much more than our internal chemistry. It serves a powerful social and evolutionary purpose that helps guide the development of human relations in countless ways.

Dr. Tim Miles of Loughborough University, who has spent years researching the phenomenology (the study of experience and consciousness) of comedy performances, says experiencing comedy is an inherently communal activity.

“We laugh around 30 times more frequently in company than when alone, and when we do laugh alone it is often because we imagine doing so with someone else,” Miles said.

“More specifically, [humor] functions as a signal of human relationships. We laugh primarily for social reasons. We laugh when we want to feel accepted as part of a group, or want people to like us, or be attracted to us.”


A survey of 20,000 users on dating platform eHarmony found that good sense of humor was the most important criterion for both men and women looking for a partner.

Of course, there’s a biological explanation for why laughter is so attractive.

Miles explained that evolutionary psychology holds the answer. When we’re able to laugh at something, it shows we’re good at spotting incongruities. That’s a sign of intelligence, which is attractive to potential mates because it means we’ll be better able to take care of our offspring and pass along that smartness to them.

Showing your sense of humor is like auditioning for a date — or a marriage.

Laughter also serves a critical role in group formation. Laughing alongside someone indicates you mean each other no harm, and reinforces internal bonds when members of the same group can laugh at those outside their group.

“In general, it acts as a means of breaking the ice in groups, of uniting groups, of helping people relax and feel welcome. It helps relieve tension, and create hierarchies,” Miles said.

“You will find joking is strong in military units, or medical teams — any group that requires high levels of trust and teamwork.”

How many programmers does it take to change a light bulb? None. It’s a hardware problem.

Given the complex neural processes involved in creating and understanding a joke, as well as humor’s origins in evolutionary biology, comedy may seem to be a uniquely human phenomenon.


But could we ever teach a computer to have a sense of humor?

“Computers have trouble recognizing jokes because it takes a lot of social awareness, world knowledge and contextual intelligence that computers don’t yet have,” Weems said.

“Although supercomputers are getting closer to understanding broader context.”

Weems believes a computer that actually “gets” comedy would be the first real example of artificial intelligence.

“When we develop a computer than can tell jokes and can understand jokes, that’s when we’ve created a machine that’s truly intelligent. And it’s not that far away,” he noted.

“I think the ability to get a joke would be a great Turing test.”

According to Weems, computer scientists have historically tried to program machines to recognize the rules of humor, even though it has no rules.

Instead, independence, rather than prescriptive guidelines, might be the answer.

“When you get to a neural network style of learning, the results are a lot better,” said Weems.

“Unsupervised learning programs let computers discover what constitutes a joke on their own and that’s a more effective level of comprehension. Letting computers teach themselves comedy is the key.”

Photos by Shutterstock.

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