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Jokes for the brain: Unlock the neural mechanisms of the brain in reading different humorous materials

(This report is provided by Dr. Hsueh-Chih Chen and the doctoral candidate Yi-Tzu Chang’s research team in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling)

Humor is a good medicine for physical and mental health, as well as an effective lubricant for interpersonal relationships. Previous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have revealed the neural structure of the brain in reading humorous materials, and the different brain regions dedicated to reading and understanding different humorous materials. Based on this, Chen and Chang’s research team is the first to use event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate the cognitive processes of different humorous materials, taking advantage of the high temporal resolution of ERPs to clarify the dynamic temporal differences in the cognitive processes of humor comprehension. The results not only enable us to understand how the brain interprets different types of humorous materials (e.g., pun jokes and semantic jokes) from the perspective of brain science, but also contribute to the integration of psychological research in Taiwan and abroad, and facilitate academic/scientific exchanges between international scholars.

Humor has become an increasingly popular research topic in recent years, and it is also a powerful tool that helps to stabilize our country and society and alleviate people’s stress. Past research has shown that different humorous materials are processed by different neural structures in the brain. This study is the first using 'event-related potentials', a technique to measure our brain activity with high temporal resolutions, to underpin the neural mechanism for humor comprehension. The results showed that different humorous materials not only differ in the brain neural networks they activate, but also in the temporal sequence of brain activation. This is the first important discovery in the relevant research field in Taiwan and abroad.

This study investigated two types of humorous materials: semantic jokes and pun jokes. Compared to the general semantic jokes, pun jokes are understood with an additional twist from phonological similarity, so they must be re-interpreted by considering phonological mechanisms or logic. In contrast, semantic jokes do not need to go through the re-interpretation process due to the phonological logic. Examples of humorous materials used in this study are as follows:

Semantic joke: Where’s the place with the cheapest rent? The prison.
Pun joke1 : What would a kylin become if he flew to the North Pole? Ice cream. 

The research team found that semantic jokes and pun jokes are already processed differently in the brain early, i.e., during the stage of incongruity detection (about 300-500 milliseconds after reading the punchline), and subsequently, in the incongruity resolution stage (about 600-900 milliseconds after reading the punchline) of humor comprehension. The results showed that based on different joke characteristics, our brain’s neural process can diverge for different humorous materials in a very short time (less than 1 second), and such subtle and rapid differentiation cannot be revealed through traditional behavioral measurement or observation. In addition, complementary behavioral measurements (i.e., questionnaires) in this study make the results more reliable and increase the explanatory power. Taken together, this study is not only solid in providing a foundation in the basic science of 'getting humor,' but also original and pioneering. The research findings are innovative in the international academic field, paving the way for future application and theoretical development of relevant research. The results of this study have been published in an international academic journal of cognitive psychology.

To accommodate typical paradigms used in measuring neural activity and the uniqueness of Chinese in terms of semantic meanings in different contexts, it is not easy in selecting and designing humorous materials. The effort invested in the selection of humorous materials in this study contributes to a rarely-seen joke database with its own research potential and value in Taiwan. However, what needs to be worried is that if researchers try to explain humor in great details from a scientific point of view, it may not be funny!

Nevertheless, humor has the intention of eliciting laughter. With this study, we hope that the research results will equip the public with a more scientific and intellectual understanding of humor, and promote a “humorous” attitude when encountering difficulty in daily life. Ultimately, humor can become a powerful aid for Taiwanese people to relieve emotional stress and improve their quality of life.

1The joke is translated from Chinese. A kylin (pronounced /qi2 lin2/) is a mythical Chinese creature, and if this creature were to fly to the cold environment of the North Pole, it would then become an “ iced kylin ” . The semantic meaning of “ iced kylin ” (pronounced /bing1 ci2 lin2/), is very different from the meaning of “ ice cream ” , but has the same pronunciation in Chinese.


Hsueh-Chih Chen

Distinguished Professor | Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling

Dr. Chen is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling, Dean of the College of Education, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Research in Educational Sciences (SCOPUS and ESSCI journals) and the Journal of Educational Psychology (SCOPUS journal). His research interests include Chinese character reading and teaching, creativity theory and teaching, humor psychology, and positive psychology.

Yi-Tzu Chang

Doctoral candidate | Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling

Chang is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling. Her research interests include dark traits, cognitive processes of humor, and semantic processing.