Dr. Universe,

What happens in our brain and body when we hear a funny joke?

— Candace, 13, Irvine, Calif.

When we hear a funny joke, there are lots of different things that happen in the brain and body. My friend Paul Bolls, the director of the Media Mind Lab at Washington State University, told me all about it.

Bolls said one part of the brain that gets “tickled” when we hear a joke is called the frontal cortex. This is an area at the front of the brain that helps make sense of the joke and determine if it is funny.

Of course, exactly what someone finds funny depends on everything from culture to experiences they’ve had in life and their own sense of humor.

“When our brains get tickled, regardless of our different backgrounds and beliefs or what divides us, the brain processes involved in humor unite us as humans,” Bolls said.

Bolls said scientists have learned more about how the brain responds to humor with the help of MRI technology, which can capture images of people’s brains.

Scientists have observed that when a person experiences something funny, it also activates the brain’s emotional center. The emotional center includes a structure called the amygdala as well as the limbic system. Together, these different parts of the brain bring about that human experience of humor.

You may have observed that people also often get big smiles on their faces when they laugh. There are 42 muscles in the face, and laughter can give them a great workout.

Meanwhile, there is also a chemical called dopamine at play. It’s a kind of happy hormone that can make us feel good as we watch a silly cat video, read a hilarious meme or hear a funny joke.

The joke might make you chuckle, but if it’s a super funny joke, you might feel your heart beat faster, get tears in your eyes or even have trouble catching your breath. Laughter can be a full-body experience.

It can also be really good for your health. Some research has shown that laughter can decrease the number of molecules in the body that make people stressed. Meanwhile, it can also increase immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies that help protect people from getting sick.

Alright, here’s a challenge for you: Try to write up a few jokes of your own. Or check out a book of jokes from your local library. Next, test them out on friends and family, and see how they react. Bolls said jokes often work best when there is an element of surprise or when a couple of ideas come together in unexpected ways. Here’s one science joke to get you started. Q: How does the moon cut its hair? A: Eclipse it.

Bolls and I want to thank you for helping us take a step back and think about something funny. It’s always fun to investigate the innerworkings of the brain, especially when it’s sparked by a great science question like yours.

Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu, on her website at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu, via Twitter at @AskDrUniverse or at facebook.com/AskDrUniverse.

Recommended for you