July 28, 2011 at 10:11 AM ET
Q. “Why don’t cannibals eat clowns?”
A. “Because they taste funny!”
That may seem like just a silly pun, but it likely triggered widespread activity in that noggin of yours.
Tristan Bekinschtein and his coauthors learned this by using MRI to scan a dozen volunteers’ brains as they listened to four types of sentences: puns and other types of jokes and non-jokes that either contained words with more than one meaning or didn’t.
Here’s an example from the study of a non-joke with a word that has more than one meaning:
Q. “What happened to the post?”
A. “As usual, it was given to the best-qualified applicant.”
Hilarious, right? The first thing you think of when you hear the word "post" is probably a wooden pole (or a blog post!), but learning that this sentence refers instead to a job opening isn’t exactly going to split your sides.
The researchers asked each volunteer to rate the funniness of every joke and non-joke they’d heard on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being about as funny as a toothache and 7 being ROFL funny. The participants did rate the jokes significantly funnier than the non-jokes.
Both the jokes and the non-jokes that contained words with more than one meaning lighted up parts of the brain involved in understanding the meaning of words. No huge surprise there.
But the jokes, whether puns or not, also activated parts of the brain associated with experiencing positive rewards. And the funnier the volunteers rated the jokes, the more the jokes tickled the reward areas in their brains.
So, did the areas of the brain associated with positive rewards light up before, while or after the volunteers listened to the jokes? Could the anticipation of a good punchline (face it—any time you hear the word cannibal, you pretty much expect a joke will follow, right?) get your brain’s reward areas all fired up?
Bekinschtein, a Cambridge University neuroscientist who published his pun study June 29 in the Journal of Neuroscience, says he’s thought about that, too.
The brain responses as seen on MRI are too sluggish to tell when they occurred in relationship to hearing a joke, he says, “but I am now analyzing a study looking at that with a different experimental design.”
All I know is that I can’t get this other cannibal joke out of my head. It was posted on a blog report about Bekinschtein’s research. Forgive me if you’ve already heard it.
Q. What did the cannibal get when he arrived late to the party?
A. The cold shoulder.