Researchers find humor's "G-spot"

Two Toronto scientists have found that people with damage in their right frontal lobes have a hard time comprehending elaborate jokes.


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Dawn MacKeen
April 7, 1999 5:30PM (UTC)

Researchers may finally have found comedy's central station. And we're not talking about the one that's on TV. Two Toronto psychologists have concluded in the April issue of the international science journal Brain that people with damage to the right frontal lobe of their brain have a hard time comprehending elaborate jokes. The study by the University of Toronto/Rothman Research Institute purports to be the first of its kind to show that the frontal lobe plays a "preeminent" role in getting a joke or not getting it. Think of it as humor's new G-spot.

"We've always thought of humor as a defining human attribute, but an intangible part of personality," says Prathiba Shammi, the psychology graduate student who led the study, in a statement. "Now we know humor can be tested and scientifically scrutinized."

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Scientifically scrutinized? Not so, says Lewis Black, a comedian who regularly appears on "The Conan O'Brien Show" and does the sketch "Back in Black" for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." First of all, he says, nothing kills a joke more than trying to explain it. And second of all, "to say that these people who have had parts of their brains removed can't get sophisticated humor ... C'mon you don't have to study that. Did they study the people who have had the left half whacked off and are still chuckling?"

Well, no. But the study did look at how 31 people, 21 of whom had a brain injury, responded to jokes both in written and verbal form. Those with the injuries stemming from either a stroke, a brain tumor or having part of their brain removed chose the wrong punch lines to written jokes, and didn't laugh or smile as much at cartoons or jokes told verbally. On the other hand, the "Three Stooges" world of slapstick sent them back into stitches. The study also calls into question long-held beliefs that the right frontal lobe was not critical for performing higher cognitive functions.

But Black says the environment where a joke is told, or conveyed, plays an important role in understanding it. The optimal situation, he says, is in a crowd full of people from diverse backgrounds. "To be told a joke in front of guys in lab coats is a scary proposition because they put on those gloves and you think, 'What are they going to do next?' I think we're lucky that they didn't find that our sense of humor is in our rectal area."


Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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