Ha! The Science Behind What Makes Us Laugh

Speakers and presenters, take note: People learn better and are more engaged when you incorporate humor into your program. But you can’t fake it. Author Scott Weems explains why.

Stop us if you’ve heard this. A cognitive neuroscientist walks into a bar. No, wait. Why did the cognitive neuroscientist cross the road? Okay, try this: A priest, a rabbi, and a cognitive neuroscientist are on an airplane.

Okay, forget it. Let’s just cut to the cognitive neuroscientist. That would be Scott Weems, an adjunct research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language and the author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why. As an academic looking to quantify and qualify the mechanics of humor, Weems understands that he’s on dangerous, banana-peel-strewn ground — what can the ivory tower possibly tell us about what’s funny? — but he thinks the topic is too important to ignore. Humor “is closely associated with nearly every aspect of the human condition,” Weems writes in Ha! “For example, the same processes that give us humor also contribute to insight, creativity, and even psychological health.”

And they can make your attendees sit up and take notice. Recently we spoke to Weems about the “social phenomenon” of laughter, the limits of humor with an international audience, and how that elephant got in Groucho Marx’s pajamas.

What’s your favorite joke?

That’s always dangerous when people ask that question, because they assume that because I study humor I’m good at telling jokes. I’ll tell you a joke, but no high expectations, if that’s okay.

So noted.

My taste in humor runs along British lines, I guess. There’s a joke that’s more popular in England: A dog walks in to the telegraph office and says, “I want to send a message,” and the operator says, “Okay, what’s your message?” The dog says, “It’s ‘woof woof woof woof woof woof woof woof woof.’” The operator does some counting and says, “You know, that’s only nine woofs. You can send a 10th woof for free.” And the dog says, “But that would make no sense.”

That’s funny! And it fits into the overarching idea of your book, which is that humor is really the process of the brain trying to come to terms with conflict.

There’s two ways of looking at humor in general. One is to try to figure out what’s the heart of the joke itself. You do that by looking at jokes primarily, and that’s really difficult, because there are lots of theories, but seldom does one rule apply to one joke that also applies to another. It’s really hard to generalize. So I wanted to go in a different direction. I wanted to know what happens in our heads as we process a joke.

Or more generally, we laugh at a lot more than jokes. We laugh all the time — when we’re meeting people for the first time, during awkward introductions, even during sad moments in our lives, we tend to laugh. I wanted to see what’s going on in our heads as we do that.

It turns out that it’s about conflict, really. The brain has got lots of different modules, lots of different working parts, and it’s seldom just working on one thing at a time. When you get mixed messages, or you try to understand some concept or some sentence or phrase that has more than one meaning — the multiple meanings don’t mesh, they conflict — then your brain is confronted with a problem. If a computer has a problem like that, it just crashes and shuts down, and we get frustrated and slam the monitor. But we can’t do that as people; we can’t just shut down when we get confused. The body has kind of adopted laughter as the way we deal with these moments. Some of them are surreal, like dogs-sending-telegraphs jokes, and sometimes they’re a little more straightforward.

What is happening physically in the brain when all of this is going on?

The short answer is, a lot is going on in the brain, and it’s so tricky to figure it out. You could put people in MRI scanners, look at their brain, and you could see all sorts of areas lighting up during a joke. If it’s a verbal joke, you’ll get language areas; if it’s more of a visual kind of gag, then there will be visual areas, too.

But there’s one region in particular that is pretty much active for all kinds of jokes, and it’s called the anterior cingulate. I could talk far more about the anterior cingulate than I should, but with that said, it’s a really fascinating area because it’s responsible for dealing with conflict. When we’re trying to understand more than one thing at a time, or we have some disparate feelings or goals in whatever situation — the anterior cingulate works through that problem and tells certain parts of the brain that they’re allowed to respond and other parts can’t.

There’s an old, classic Groucho Marx line: “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How it got in my pajamas, I have no idea.” You don’t think of that as a process of conflict, but there’s actually a lot of conflict going on in the brain even for a little quip like that. Who’s wearing the pajamas really depends on how far in that sentence you are. There’s a brief moment where the anterior cingulate is trying to work out, wait, who’s wearing the pajamas again, and then trying to imagine an elephant wearing a one-piece or something, which is just absurd and I’d say intrinsically funny by itself. It’s a psychological process of coping.

In terms of meetings and conventions, I was interested in what you write about the social aspects of humor — the idea that it can create bonds between people and foster emotional engagement. How might that dynamic work in a larger group setting?

It’s so easy to talk about humor in a very stuffy, cognitive way and talk about what happens to the brain, but when you really get down to it, it is a social phenomenon. It’s really hard to be in a room by yourself and laugh. Laugher was meant to be shared between people. That’s why I liken it to dancing. You build a rhythm with someone when you laugh with them. Part of that is because it serves a really good social purpose — if you’re laughing with someone, you’re getting on the same cognitive level with them.

That’s why studies show that it’s very beneficial to include humor in talks. There’s one study that found that some presenters gave talks with their points in good, logical order, and some people had their points mixed up, partially at random, so there was not a good linear flow in their presentations. They found that the presenters who included humor were still seen as organized even though they had their points mixed up. [See “Laughing Matters,” above.] Humor can tie messages together, I think because it’s keeping our brains going. We’re building that relationship and thinking a little bit deeper when there’s humor involved in presentations. I think that is why it is really helpful.

That’s the first part. The second part is that so many studies have shown that humor is social and that when one person laughs, people around them laugh. Part of the reason for that is it is intrinsically social and it’s a bonding form. If you think about previous species or early in the evolutionary development, when apes meet each other they tend to show their teeth and make grunting noises — behaviors which are kind of a lot like laughter. You can see how humans have maybe co-opted that behavior of laughter as a way of getting to know each other. It is certainly better than the alternatives, which would be if we didn’t have some other way to share these moments, then who knows? In the wild, animals sometimes hit each other with sticks. We can’t do that, we live in a society, so laughter is a good behavior to have co-opted.

In an evolutionary sense, does laughter somehow function as sort of a steam valve? Like, we do that or something worse would happen?

It does, yeah. There’s a saying that there are so many moments in life when you can either laugh or you can cry. We often do have the choice of which of the two we use. They both serve similar purposes in some ways; they help us get out our emotions. In fact, there’s a term for it. It’s called “great humor.” [Sigmund] Freud talked about “catharsis” as the washing away of emotion. There is something that’s the opposite of that, too, which he called “cathexis,” which is the complex engagement of multiple emotions. It’s basically the opposite of catharsis; you’re not washing anything away, you’re actually activating lots of emotions at once. These sad moments when you’re not sure whether you can laugh or you can cry — it’s good to laugh, because you’re not pushing away the sadness, you’re actually matching that sadness with behavior that’s linked with happiness, too, and helping to overcome it.

If you can use humor to create a bond with and among an audience, is there a point where it does the opposite? Is there a line you can cross, where humor alienates or marginalizes your audience?

Yeah, I think that there is. It probably wouldn’t be very surprising to your audience [to know] that if humor comes across as forced, it tends to have the opposite effect. It happens in presentations, and in classrooms, too. In classrooms, if teachers use humor that is related to the subject material, students remember the material better, they perform better on tests afterward, because the humor meshes with what the teacher is trying to teach. If the humor is just extra — it doesn’t really fit in, the teacher is just telling a joke every now and then — it doesn’t help attention at all, and in fact it can come across as forced and turn students off. I think any sort of presentation setting is the same way. If you try to make people laugh, or are basically using humor for humor’s sake, it doesn’t work as well, because not only do people feel manipulated, it doesn’t serve any purpose either. It doesn’t help people learn what you’re trying to talk about.

I think in a distant way this is also related to shared laughter. If you’re around somebody who is laughing and it’s obviously fake laughing — so they’re not laughing at whatever is supposedly funny, and you can tell that — that’s when shared laughter disappears. You’re not likely to laugh; in fact, you’re less likely to laugh. You feel like your emotions are being manipulated, so that’s always a danger.

How does humor function across cultures and across nationalities? Are there pitfalls to relying on humor when you’re dealing with a diverse international audience?

It is really difficult to share humor, especially if there’s language differences or cultural differences, too. So much of humor delivery is based on timing and just a general rhythm that if you’re not coming at the humor with the same language background, it can be really hard to communicate that. If you’re watching a humorous movie, for example, and it has subtitles or has been dubbed over, the humor almost never translates, because there’s just a rhythm to it. Scientists have actually tried to study that rhythm and it’s almost impossible to quantify, which I think is fascinating. It means that it is far more complex than a simple make-sure-to-pause-here or speed-up-your-rhythm-here kind of rule-making.

But you can still do it. Humor is universal, I would say. All cultures laugh, everybody enjoys humor, and so I think part of the trick is, if you’re giving a talk in a setting where there’s lots of different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, to rely on natural humor that follows from the situation rather than language. It sounds obvious, but puns and wordplay are probably not going to fly at an international conference. But I’ve heard some neuroscience talks which were just funny because the speaker was naturally a lively person, and I think if it’s natural and it’s authentic, then it will translate better, because humor is universal.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.