EPS 30: Why is it funny? A neuroscientist on humor studies

  • What makes something funny?
  • Can the science behind what makes us laugh teach us something about how to make better decisions, or how to getting along better with others?
  • Why do some people find things offensive that others find hilarious?
  • What factors influence humor and can they be altered for desirable outcomes?
  • Can the brain recover from major damage and how plastic is it?

All these questions and many more are studied using experiments and FMRI brain scans at the Goel Neuroscience Lab at Toronto’s York University to unlock the role of emotion in decision-making, mental systems, and human behavior.

Scroll down to click the LISTEN button.


Dr. Vinod Goel is my guest today. He is a neuroscientist of note, but he is currently on sabbatical in Zurich, so he will not likely be joining us for our LIVE discussion portion on humor on October 13.

Enjoy my recorded conversation with him for the podcast and scroll down for shownotes.

Caleb Warren, behavioral researcher from the Humor Research Lab, with Pete McGraw author of the Humor Code,  is stepping in to answer your questions and discus the science of humor on October 13 HERE(or click to watch the replay)

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The way the brain understands a joke works the same way any mental set shifts work. By studying what the brain does with humor, we can understand how the brain understands and perceives the world in symbols, language, abstraction, and in social contexts. Using FMRI scans that study of the brain has revealed some interesting and surprising findings.


Basic jokes rely on non verbal set ups that become funny when the expectation is not met and advance jokes are semantical and often involve a shift in thinking about a social norm.


Why uneducated people get offended at jokes.


Physical humor and language-based humor. It depends on triggers.


Study show that tickling rats cause a kind of laughing response. Are they REALLY laughing?


How are humor develops, starting in childhood and moving toward abstract concepts. The social context and the semantic network of association develop to understand much more.


His study of the role of emotion in reason and decision-making.

The impetus was watching American politics.


The manipulation of emotion in advertisements to bring people to an illogical conclusion. Different portions of the brain are not used that would help make a good and logical decision.


Arguments laden with emotion don’t engage the reasoning part of the brain found in the left dorsal lethal prefrontal cortex. Instead brain activation happens in the medial ventral prefrontal cortex.

Studying war veterans with brain damage in the medial ventral prefrontal cortex could reason just fine but not if the medial ventral was damage. This part of the brain filters out the emotional content so we can make wise decisions.


His findings show the individuals with more education and with higher IQ, and better working memory capacity care better at compensating for the differences and detect if there is emotion playing into the decision at hand.


Brain plasticity and what can be healed.


The strange case of the normal woman they scanned who had the shockingly atrophied brain hemisphere. Her working hemisphere took over all the functions of the damaged hemisphere.


One of the surprises in his recent research that exploded the common perception in the field of neuroscience.

The visional perception parts of the brain that are not near the frontal lobe but help us in reasoning.


Dr Goel ideas about why humor is such an important part of the human experience.

Humor allows us to entertain ideas in a non threatening and safe environment or forum where we can positively interact.


The distinction between humor and pleasure and between laughter and humor.


Laughing disorders and occasions where laughter doesn’t include mirth. Laughing yoga and the “holy laughing” phenomenon.

Where in the brain laughter is sourced. Feigned laughter is shown to come from a different part of the brain than genuine laughter.


Laughing and yawning can both be phenomenon.


Laugh tracks used in comedy shows to make us perceive the show as more funny.


Often humor is relying on the violations of social norms. The science behind why Archie Bunker is no longer funny for most people.


On what makes something classically funny.


Dr Goel children don’t think he’s funny.


The brain chemistry of humor in the reward centers of the brain.


“Humor is a very sophisticated marker of intelligence.”

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