Humor on the Brain: AHA! The Relationship Between Insight, Improv, and Your Brain

Aha Moment What do you think of when I say DESERT and HUMPS?

Was your answer CAMEL?

If your answer wasn’t camel, you either misread desert as dessert and came up with a kinky alternative, or maybe you just need some brushing up on zoology. If your answer was indeed camel, then you have engaged in what some neuroscientists refer to as the "Aha Moment." How often do you experience that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon where you can’t come up with a word, but as soon as you do, it’s this incredible burst of realization? That’s the "Aha Moment."

Research at the Center of Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas, along with scientists at Drexel University and Northwestern University, has found that the "Aha Moment" is a crucial form of creativity that allows you to understand a joke, clarify something confusing, or make a greater realization about yourself or others. More generally speaking, it's a form of insight. Those who are more insightful are actually better at blocking out irrelevant information so they can better direct their attention and prepare to solve problems analytically. These neurological differences are even seen during rest - so more insightful individuals naturally have greater activity in regions associated with language processing and attention.

Being able to integrate and reorganize all different elements in a situation subconsciously to solve a problem and make important innovations about a scene is a necessary component of improv and other forms of comedy. While we still can’t say for certain the directionality of the relationship between insight and improved brain activation for problem-solving and attention, it seems as though there may be a clear link between the insight you use in an improv scene and these neurological benefits. In other words, it seems you may be doing your brain some good every time you have an "Aha Moment" over a joke or the game in an improv scene.

Julie Schneider is a neuroscientist and graduate of the DCH improv training program. When she isn't working to finish her PhD, she enjoys traveling.

(Image: Jason Hensel)