Humor on the Brain: Puns

I have a huge interest in brain science. I also have a huge interest in humor. I'm going to put those two together for a new series on this blog. It will explore the inner workings of what your brain is doing when it's creating or processing comedy. Maggie Austin

Let's start this series with everyone's favorite (or despised) comedic device: Puns. University of Windsor researchers recently published a study in Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition explaining how your right and left brain hemispheres work together when you hear a pun.

Study participants viewed a pun on one side of their visual fields so they would be processed first by the corresponding hemisphere (e.g., right eye = left hemisphere). They analyzed reaction time to find out the dominant hemisphere.

“The left hemisphere is the linguistic hemisphere, so it's the one that processes most of the language aspects of the pun, with the right hemisphere kicking in a bit later” Lori Buchanan, a psychology professor and co-author of the study, told Scientific American.

The teamwork of both hemispheres is what helps us understand jokes.

"Puns, as a form of word play, complete humor's basic formula: expectation plus incongruity equals laughter," Roni Jacobson reported for Scientific American.

Words can have multiple meanings, and it's the left hemisphere's job to interpret them in specific ways. It's the right hemisphere's job to help us understand other meanings for the words and then "get" the joke (often met with a groan).

While puns are funny (yes, yes they are), there can be a darker side to them: They could be the sign of a damaged brain. And for your brain, that's no laughing matter.

Jason Hensel is a graduate of the DCH improv training program. He manages the DCH blog and performs with .f.a.c.e., the ’95 Bulls, and Bound Together.