People with a self-defeating humor style demonstrate increased gray matter volume in the left orbital frontal cortex — a brain region involved in emotion perception. This effect was strongest among individuals high in divergent thinking, suggesting a moderating role of creativity. The findings were published in Brain Imaging and Behavior.
While neuroscientists have previously investigated the neural basis of humor, study authors Weiwei Zhang and colleagues say there is a shortage of research on the neural mechanisms of specific humor styles. The researchers focused their study on self-defeating humor — a humor style that involves making fun of oneself to gain acceptance from others. A step further than being able to laugh at one’s mistakes, this style of humor tends to be unhealthy and overly self-degrading.
The authors conducted a study that used voxel-based morphometry (VBM), a neuroimaging technique that allows scientists to measure differences in regional gray matter volume across a group of subjects. Since creativity plays a key role in humor, the researchers also considered the role of divergent thinking — an aspect of creativity that involves coming up with multiple solutions to a problem.
A total of 280 undergraduate students from a Chinese university underwent MRI scans. The students also completed questionnaires that assessed their humor styles, differentiating between affiliative humor, aggressive humor, self-enhancing humor, and self-defeating humor. Students additionally completed a creative thinking test which had them complete seven different tasks to measure divergent thinking. For example, one task had participants come up with various solutions to improve a product. Their performances on these tasks were then scored along the dimensions of fluency, flexibility, and originality, with the total scores indicating participants’ divergent thinking ability.
Using multiple regression analyses, the researchers analyzed the relationship between regional gray matter volume in the brain and humor style. After controlling for age, gender, and whole-brain GMV, they found that having a self-defeating humor style was associated with increased gray matter volume in the left orbital frontal cortex (OFC).
The study authors explain that the OFC lies at the front of the brain and is the area of the prefrontal cortex that rests above the eye sockets. The OFC receives information from the sensory areas and is connected to the limbic system, which is involved in emotion processing. Humor is also closely tied to emotions and has been found to combat negative affect. The researchers say it is not surprising, then, that humor is linked to the OFC.
It was further found that divergent thinking moderated the link between self-defeating humor and regional gray matter volume, such that it was stronger among participants higher in divergent thinking, and weaker among those lower in divergent thinking. “We hypothesize that divergent thinking is a type of expansive thinking based on existing information that involves thinking from different angles and different directions and seeking diverse answers from various aspects,” Zhang and colleagues write. “Therefore, people with high divergent thinking may use a more creative humor style to express themselves.”
The study authors say that these findings point to a connection between brain structures, divergent thinking, and humor styles. Future studies should explore the neural mechanisms of additional humor styles, in order to draw stronger conclusions about the relationship between humor and the orbital frontal cortex.
The study, “Relationship between self-defeating humor and the Gray matter volume in the orbital frontal cortex: the moderating effect of divergent thinking”, was authored by Weiwei Zhang, Kaixiang Zhuang, Qunlin Chen, Baoguo Shi, Jiang Qiu, and Nan Wang.