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Sense of Humor Starts Early in Children

Researchers Hope Finding Will Lead to a Better Understanding of How Humor Affects a Child’s Well-being
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 31, 2012 -- It may come as no surprise to parents of funny kids, but a new study shows children’s sense of humor starts developing early.

Researchers found the same parts of the brain that respond to humor in adults are active in children as young as 6 years old. But the circuitry within the brain associated with a sense of humor becomes more sophisticated with age.

“Our new finding suggests that the network that responds to humorous stimuli in adults is already present in kids but is not as well-developed,” researcher Allan Reiss, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University School of Medicine, says in a news release.

Researchers say the finding should lead to a better understanding of how positive emotions like a sense of humor develop and affect a child’s well-being.

“Humor is a very important component of emotional health, maintaining relationships, developing [mental] function, and perhaps even medical health,” Reiss says. “In particular, we think a balanced and consistent sense of humor may help children negotiate the difficult period of pre-adolescence and adolescence.”

Finding Funny in the Brain

In the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers analyzed brain scans of 15 children aged 6 to 12 years while they watched short video clips.

The videos were pre-evaluated by a separate group of children and rated as funny, positive, or neutral. The “funny” videos were mostly taken from the TV program “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” and were considered funny and rewarding to watch.

The positive videos were rewarding to watch but not funny, and the neutral videos were neither rewarding nor funny.

The results showed that the funny videos activated two regions of the brain that are also activated in the adult brain in response to humor.

For example, the children had a lot of activity in a part of the brain area that processes incongruities when they watched funny videos.

Humor Rewarding, Surprising

Like adults, the children’s reward-processing areas of the brain were also activated while watching funny videos. These reward-processing areas were more strongly activated in younger children than in older ones.

Researchers say that suggests that the response of the brain’s reward-processing centers becomes more sophisticated as children mature. Alternatively, it may mean that the funny videos were more age-appropriate (and rewarding) for the younger children.

Finally, the study showed that this reward-processing area was also activated when watching the positive videos. But the positive videos did not activate the parts of the brain that process incongruity.

Researchers say that confirms that surprise is a key element of humor for children and adults.

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