December 2, 2023

You CAN Teach an Old Brain New Tricks: Stimulate Your Brain with Humor

Author: Kate Findley
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By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Not only is watching comedy or telling jokes fun, but it’s actually good for your brain! Professor Vishton explains.

Couple laughing in theater
When study participants are presented with humorous material, research shows that a remarkably wide range of areas within the brain are activated. Photo By Tyler Olson / Shutterstock

Stimulate Brain Activity

To maintain brain health, you need to stimulate your brain. What’s counterintuitive is that one of the best ways to broadly stimulate brain activity is to do new activities—activities for which you are specifically not an expert. The more challenging the task is, the more of your brain will be recruited to support it, and the less it will shrink.

If any of your novel activities involve laughing, there is good evidence that it will help keep your brain especially stimulated. Let’s try a joke. 

“When my mother was 65 years old, she started walking five miles a day to help her mind and body stay young. Now she’s 93, and we have no idea where she is.”

That’s an old Ellen DeGeneres joke. There is still no complete scientific theory of what makes something funny. 

You can’t type a joke into a computer and get a number back, indicating how funny it will be. However, a lot of progress has been made in understanding our brain’s processing of humor. One of the central pieces of that puzzle is incongruity detection and then resolution.

How Humor Works

“When I read the first line of that Ellen joke, I said my mother was 65 and started walking five miles a day,” Professor Vishton said. “I never stated that she walked a loop starting and ending near her house, but you likely inferred that to be so. When I said she was doing it to keep her mind and body young, it reinforced that inference. When I said we have no idea where she is it caused you to have to rethink that whole sentence.”

Maybe she walked five miles a day, stopped for a while, and then continued from where she left off. As your brain identifies the incongruity, and then corrects its initial interpretation of it, it engages a remarkably wide range of areas within the brain. 

Language areas become more active when a stimulus is funny as compared to when it is not. The medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and precuneus, superior temporal gyrus, as well as the superior temporal sulcus all show similar boosts in activation when presented with material that people rate as funny. 

Laughter is also associated with a substantial release of dopamine into the pleasure circuits of the brain. When you watch funny movies, listen to or read funny stories, or have a funny conversation with a friend, your brain lights up in terms of widely distributed activity.

Professor Vishton recommends doing one completely new activity per month to stimulate your brain, and it is even better if that activity involves humor. That said, you shouldn’t feel limited to one new thing per month. 

“If you’ve done your new thing for the month of July, and you think of something you really want to do on July 25th, by all means, go do it,” Professor Vishton said. “My suggestion here is a minimum of one completely new activity per month. There is no maximum.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

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