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Visualizing brain activity, understanding humor as emotion

Alan Flurry

Whether it’s sarcasm, a punchline or a comical accident, humor is ubiquitous around the world. No matter the culture or language, humor involves substantial high-level mental processing. A new meta-analysis by University of Georgia psychology researchers shows humor also exhibits a surprising amount of brain activity associated with emotional processes – findings that suggest humor provides its own kind of reward.

While a great deal of neuroimaging for brain research has focused on risk/reward scenarios to understand emotional processing, humor has been largely under-studied in the context of neuroimaging and fMRI. But with the power of one of the most widely used modern techniques, activation likelihood estimation, or ALE, psychologists can visualize the regions where humor is processed in the brain – opening up intriguing possibilities for therapeutics and interventions for improved health.

“Significant data exists from research on basic rewards – giving people money, showing them really pleasant images, comparing that to something that’s neutral or not getting a reward in some way,” said Andrew Farkas, UGA doctoral student and lead author on the paper. “Humor is rewarding, but it also involves a lot of pretty advanced mental functioning – we have to understand what other people are thinking, we have to understand the context of what’s going on, we often have to solve an incongruity – so that’s usually how a joke occurs. You’re expecting one thing to happen, and understanding that something else happened is what makes it humorous.”


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