Friday, February 12, 2010

Processing Humor

C.P. Snow was right in 1959 when he talked about the "two cultures"--it's a shame that as fields get more specialized, well-ranging knowledge falls by the wayside. Let it never be said that Spit Takes widened that divide (in fact, we've talked science here before).
So--with that in mind, let's visit an awesome article from earlier this month on the New Scientist site. The Comedy Circuit: When Your Brain Gets the Joke is a brief but in-depth exploration of what researchers learn when applying fMRI scans to people on the receiving end of humor (watching sitcoms, reading cartoons, etc.). 

I won't go in to all their discoveries, because they already have (and it truly is worth your time), but here are some highlights that I appreciated: 
No two brains are the same, however, and how these differences are reflected in our sense of humour is the subject of much research. Men and women, for example, seem to process jokes slightly differently. Although both sexes laugh at roughly the same number of jokes, women show greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex than men (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 102, p 16496). "This suggests a greater degree of executive processing and language-based decoding," says Mobbs. As a result, women take significantly longer than men to decide whether they find something funny, though that doesn't seem to spoil their enjoyment of the joke. Indeed, women show a greater response in the limbic system than men, suggesting they feel a greater sense of reward.
How gratifying to see these results talked about in an elevated and fair way, as opposed to some other ridiculous treatments I've seen.
The researchers hope that pinning down the brain processes involved in understanding jokes could shed light on a number of medical conditions. Mobbs, for example, hopes that studying humour will provide insights into depression. "It is believed that the reward system is disrupted in depression and it would be interesting to see if this deficit extends to more complex social processes such as humour," he says.
Samson, meanwhile, hopes it could contribute to our understanding of autism. Previous research has suggested that people with autism have difficulty understanding comedy, but her work shows that they can understand and appreciate certain types of jokes as well as anyone...This could change the way we interact with autistic children, she says.
They make a point of showing that while volunteers with Asperger's had difficulty with processing so-called "theory-of-mind" jokes (those that require empathizing with characters--i.e., when one character doesn't get what the other is talking about), they enjoy visual puns as much as other control groups.  I'm glad there is support for my belief that puns are the most accessible form of comedy, and not the lowest, unless lowest happens to be used as a the fruit-hanging descriptor, for example, puns are low-hanging fruit that everyone can reach, in which case...never mind, I guess I am fine with that verbage.