Funny Thing About Humor and the Brain

Humor Activates Reward Center of the Brain

From the WebMD Archives

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 funny.

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 disorders.

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."