James Smart's Philadelphia
Of All Things
[No column Sept.18]
September 11, 2019
by James Smart
Read this report to activate your brain
This month’s Readers Digest has a long article about experiments that find that humor activates our brains and enhances our well-being, perhaps more than anything else.
In recent years, neuroscientists have had available new technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (known as fMRI to its friends,) that lets them see how the brain works when it is processing information. These neurobusybodies can observe which parts of the brain does what, and what benefits are caused by exercising different areas.
They claim to have learned that joking is not some frivolous diversion from more important thoughts being thunk. Brains are like muscles, and need exercise. The researchers found that humor gives brains a good workout.
A scary aspect of this research tells us that the brain is filled with opioid receptors, which check out passing molecules, pick up natural chemicals that are stimulated by humor-produced brain activity, and make us feel good. Just like a synthetic stimulator such as heroin! That’s another story, and an unpleasant one.
Learning and problem-solving brain activity also make us feel good, say the scientists. That’s where humor comes in.
Jokes, says the magazine report, tend to be built around an incongruity. They combine different ideas that are inappropriate, absurd, surprising or unusual. “Getting the joke” hits the brain like solving a puzzle, and gives the same sort of satisfaction.
The scientists behind this thinking, Ori Amire of Pamona College in Southern California and Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California, rounded up 15 students to examine 200 line drawings, while an fMRI scan peeked at their brain activity.
Each drawing came with two captions. One was descriptive and obvious; the other was “interpretive” and usually humorous. The students were told to rate each image as “not funny,” “a little funny,” or “funny.” The results showed that the funnier a person rated a caption, the more neurons in the brain were fired.
Dr. Biederman noted that the opioid receptors they were studying are located in the higher-level processing areas of the temporal lobes of the brain. That area runs roughly behind the ears up to the eyes, “where,” says the article, “we store the memories and associations we use to make sense of the world.” (I’m going to treat my forehead with more respect from now on.)
The researchers also found that creating a joke activates the brain more slowly than “getting” one. If writing humor is good exercise for our brains, then appreciating a joke is exercise on steroids.
And here’s some good news for a lot of people: Not only does humor tend to make us smarter and healthier, it may also make us more attractive to the opposite sex. A University of New Mexico study of 400 college students found that those who scored highest on intelligence tests also scored high on humor ability, and they reported having more sex.
This article reveals that there is an amazing amount of research being done on humor, its effects on life, and related subjects, such as laughter. Studies show that laughter sounds basically the same in every culture and language.
Laughter raises the heart rate, but unfortunately doesn’t burn enough calories to help losing weight.
A University of Kentucky study reports that recorded laughter can be recognized if played backward. Whoever thought of that experiment must have a strange sense of humor.
If you just read this whole, moderately funny, column, think how much smarter you must be now.