A neuroimaging study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience sheds light on the neural correlates of humor expertise. The experiment revealed that comedians showed greater cortical surface area in regions of the brain associated with humor processing and creativity.
Previous research has demonstrated that expertise is often associated with distinct cortical anatomy. The authors of the current study reasoned that the skills of professional comedians are likely mapped onto their cortical structure, presumably stemming from a genetic predisposition combined with extensive training in their field. However, few studies have explored the neural correlates of creative humor.
“I chose this line of research for two reasons. On a personal note, I have been an amateur comedian for a decade now and I enjoy the art form,” explained study author Ori Amir of Pomona College.
“More generally, there are no studies that look at the neuroanatomy of a sense of humor, and living in Hollywood as I have and having the access to hundreds of top comedians was a unique opportunity. Studying a sense of humor serves as a unique opportunity to better understand creativity in general – as humor expertise/talent can be relatively objectively classified (based on professional success) into 3 categories: Professionals, Amateurs, and Non-Comedians.”
It has been suggested that the default mode network is implicated in creativity and that the temporal association regions are involved in the processing of humor. The researchers designed a study to compare the MRI scans of professional comedians, amateur comedians, and non-comedians, focusing on these particular regions of interest.
The sample involved 12 professional comedians, 9 amateur comedians, and 17 non-comedians. All participants underwent MRI scans that used surface-based morphometry to measure cortical surface area and cortical thickness.
The researchers found that the professional comedians showed cortical distinctions in nearly all of the explored regions of interest. Specifically, they showed greater cortical surface area in the right medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), left precuneus, and the angular gyrus. These three regions, belonging to the default mode network, have been previously tied to creative thinking.
In some neural regions, the findings suggested a “dose” effect — as comedic skills increased, so did cortical surface area. Interestingly, while the professional comedians tended to show greater cortical surface area in the regions of interest, non-comedians showed greater cortical thickness in these same areas. The authors say this may be evidence of a phenomenon called cortical stretching where, as cortical area increases, cortical thickness becomes more limited.
Scholars have suggested that this cortical stretching allows for improved horizontal connection between columns in the brain — columns that represent distinct higher-order concepts. These connections may allow concepts to be linked in new ways, a process that underlies creativity, and particularly, creative humor.
The researchers say that their findings offer neural evidence in support of the link between humor creativity and the default mode network — a network of interconnected areas of the brain that are implicated in mind wandering. The findings also suggest a role for the temporal cortex regions, which have been previously connected to creative humor.
“The neuroanatomical signature of a sense of humor is reflected in a brain architecture that enables the linking together of remote associations in order to present an absurd combination or a surprising interpretation,” Amir told PsyPost. “This signature includes an increased surface area in areas involved in abstract semantics as well as the default mode network (a network involved in ‘daydreaming’).”
“The measures of the increased surface area indicate a cortical columnar connectivity structure that favors linking together information from remote areas of the brain – enabling the linking of remote associations and concepts.”
But like all research, the new study includes some limitations.
“It is yet unclear whether the anatomical differences we found in the brains of professional comedians are due to innate talent or professional experience. This distinction is notoriously difficult to make,” Amir explained.
“I believe humor offers a unique opportunity to study creativity in general, as the product (a punchline) can be relatively quickly generated and relatively objectively evaluated – in comparison to other art forms,” he added.
The study, “Mapping the “Funny Bone”: Neuroanatomical Correlates of Humor Creativity in Professional Comedians”, was authored by Jacob Brawer and Ori Amir.