Scientists uncover link between 'work' brain circuits and humour appreciation

New study shows cognitive engagement key to appreciating humour


Scientists from Institut Du Cerveau (Paris Brain Institute), France, and Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel, have made a fascinating discovery linking high-frequency neural activity, typically associated with tasks requiring cognitive engagement, to the appreciation of humor. Their findings, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, shed light on the cognitive and neuronal mechanisms underlying humor perception.

Previous research has identified the involvement of the temporal lobe in processing humorous stimuli or those associated with comedic elements. To delve deeper, the researchers analyzed intracerebral electrophysiological recordings from 13 epileptic patients who had deep brain electrodes implanted for pre-surgical assessment of refractory epilepsy. This technique allowed for precise examination of neuronal activity across various cortical areas at the millisecond scale, unlike the limited information obtained through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

During the study, the patients were instructed to watch a three-minute segment from the classic Charlie Chaplin film "Circus" (1928), while their brain activity was recorded. Prior to the experiment, a group of healthy volunteers had evaluated the comedic nature of each frame in the film. By comparing neural activity during the funniest scenes to that during the least funny ones, the researchers made significant observations.

"We observed that the funniest sequences were associated with an increase in high-frequency gamma waves and a decrease in low-frequency waves. These results indicate that high-frequency neural activity, which is seen in tasks that require a lot of cognitive engagement, such as work, is also a mark of humor appreciation," explained Vadim Axelrod, leader of the experiment.


Interestingly, the study revealed an inverse relationship between high and low frequencies specifically in temporal lobe regions, suggesting that the processing of humorous content differs across various brain areas and functions. It became evident that humor perception relies on the engagement of two neural circuits—cognitive and emotional.

According to the prevailing theory, the cognitive mechanism detects incongruity in reality, while the emotional circuit generates a positive emotional response to this incongruity. For example, in Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (1925), the protagonist eats shoelaces like spaghetti, creating an unexpected and pleasant experience.

"Our results support this theory, as we confirm the prominent role of the temporal lobe in the appreciation of humor. The anterior parts of this area, which are involved in semantic memory, are likely responsible for analyzing the scene and detecting its incongruous content. Conversely, the activation of its posterior parts could correspond to understanding the unusual and, therefore, amusing aspect of certain social interactions," elaborated Axelrod.

This groundbreaking study not only enhances our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying humor, but it also highlights the relationship between cognitive engagement and the appreciation of comedic content. The findings provide valuable insights into how our brains process humor and respond to incongruous elements in everyday life. Further research in this area may contribute to therapeutic interventions targeting disorders related to social cognition and emotional processing.