Why we laugh: how humor helps us understand how the brain works.

Why don’t we all like the same comedians? Why do you laugh at things that I don’t even get? What do these differences tell us about the way our brains are wired? For that matter, why do we ever laugh at all?  Where does laughter come from?

Richard Restak is a neurologist and neuro­psychiatrist, and the author of 20 books about the brain. Here’s his explanation.


All humor involves playing with what linguists call scripts (also referred to as frames). Basically, scripts are hypotheses about the world and how it works based on our previous life experiences.

Consider what happens when a friend suggests meeting at a restaurant. Instantaneously our brains configure a scenario involving waiters or waitresses, menus, a sequence of eatables set out in order from appetizer to dessert, followed by a bill and the computation of a tip.

This process, highly compressed and applicable to almost any kind of restaurant, works largely outside conscious awareness. And because our scripts are so generalized and compressed, we tend to make unwarranted assumptions based on them. Humor takes advantage of this tendency.

Consider, for example, almost any joke from stand-up comedian Steven Wright, known for his ironic, deadpan delivery:

—I saw a bank that said “24 Hour Banking,” but I didn’t have that much time.

—I bought some batteries, but they weren’t included. So I had to buy them again.

—I washed a sock. Then I put it in the dryer. When I took it out it was gone.

—I went into a store and asked the clerk if there was anything I could put under my coasters. He asked why I wanted to do that. I told him I wanted to make sure my coasters weren’t scratching my table.

In each of these examples, everyday activities are given a different spin by forcing the listener to modify standard scripts about them. Indeed, the process of reacting to and appreciating humor begins with the activation of a script in the brain’s temporal lobes.

It is the brain’s frontal lobes that make sense of the discrepancy between the script and the situation described by the joke or illustrated by the cartoon.

This ability is unique to our species. Though apes can engage in play and tease each other by initiating false alarm calls accompanied by laughter, they cannot shift back and forth between multiple mental interpretations of a situation. Only we can do this because—thanks to the larger size of our frontal lobes compared with other species—we are the only creatures that possess a highly evolved working memory, which by creating and storing scripts allows us to appreciate sophisticated and subtle forms of humor.

Neuroscientists often compare working memory to mental juggling. To appreciate a cartoon or a joke, you have to keep in mind at least two possible scenarios: your initial assumptions, created and stored over a lifetime in the temporal lobes, along with the alternative explanations that are worked out with the aid of the frontal lobes.

— Richard Restak, Laughter and the Brain, The American Scholar

Read Richard Restak’s Laughter and the Brain in The American Scholar. 


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