This Is Your Brain on Jokes

April 5, 2012

"Soon, ALL the sweater vests will be mine!"

Joking around can be very serious, it turns out. The connection between humor and cognition is the subject of “Your Brain on Laughter: Neuroscience of Humor and Improvisation,” a science-meets-sketch-comedy event at Strathmore on Thursday. Michael Patterson, founder of MindRAMP & Associates, a local organization that promotes brain health and cognitive fitness, will team up with members of the Washington Improv Theater to explore what makes us laugh and how humor helps our brains work.

It’s No Laughing Gray Matter

Most jokes are structured to surprise you, says Patterson. “Let’s take a classic physics joke: ‘A proton has mass. I didn’t even know it was Catholic!’ Whether it’s funny or not, you think it’s taking you in one direction, but it takes you in a totally different direction.” Patterson says some scientists believe that humor is there to “debug our thinking” by forcing our brains to deal with unexpected outcomes. In an evolutionary sense it made us better problem-solvers than other forms of life. “Invertebrates are terrible improvisers,” he says.

 Finding a Way to Fit In

Is a 3-year-old’s new obsession with fart humor innate or learned (say, from Dad, much to Mom’s dismay)? “There’s this interesting connection between … humor and play,” Patterson says. “Play is very important in learning how to function. ‘How does my body function? How do I function in relation to my mother and father and other people?’” In other words, watching his mother’s irritation and his father’s laughter teaches the preschooler that his body does surprising things and different people react in different ways to its output.

Your Cat Does Not Want Jokez

While there is evidence that animals respond by laughing to physical stimulation (that evidence involves a scientist, a super-hearing device and a grad student who was willing to tickle mice), there’s little to suggest that animals have a sense of humor in the way humans do — even at the most basic level. “Kids are born with an innate sense of physics — we don’t expect things to fall upward,” says Patterson. But when something violates the way things are supposed to be — say, a person suddenly falls down — we often laugh. Though there have been experiments suggesting that chimpanzees get surprised when their expectations are violated, they don’t seem to take pleasure from it. So when one of your cats misjudges the distance and doesn’t quite make it to the counter from the table, the other cat doesn’t find it funny. “They don’t have a good sense of pratfalls,” says Patterson. “They wouldn’t laugh at Charlie Chaplin.”

Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Thu. (sold out) and April 26, $21; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)
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Kristen Page-Kirby | April 5, 2012