Funny Thing About Humor and the Brain
Humor Activates Reward Center of the Brain
Dec. 3, 2003 -- Did you hear the one about the guy who couldn't
take a joke? The problem was a real no-brainer. His brain was just wired
Thanks to new imaging techniques, researchers are now learning
more about how the brain processes humor and may one day be able to help people
who have lost their sense of humor due to depression or other psychological
Although researchers have long known that a good sense of humor
has many healthy benefits, relatively little is known about how humor is
handled by the brain.
But a new study shows that humor may give people a natural high
by activating the same reward centers in the brain that have previously been
linked with happiness and drug-induced euphoria.
Funny Business in the Brain
In the study, published in the Dec. 4 issue of Neuron,
researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study how the brains of 16
healthy adults responded to funny vs. non-funny cartoons. The brain scans were
used to detect areas of the brain that were activated when the subject found
the cartoon funny.
The study showed that in addition to activating areas of the
brain involved in language processing, humor also stimulated regions of the
brain known as reward centers, such as the amygdala, which releases dopamine.
Dopamine is a powerful chemical that plays a vital role in the brain's pleasure
and reward system.
Researchers say the findings help explain the hedonistic
aspects of humor and may also lead to new treatments for depression.
"Loss of one's appreciation of the rewarding aspects of
humor is a frequent and fairly specific symptom of depression," says
researcher Allan Reiss, MD, of the department of psychiatry and behavioral
sciences at Stanford University, in a news release. "We believe that
utilizing studies such as this may be one way to more specifically identify
individuals at risk for depressive disorders as well as early response to
treatment in persons who are already depressed."