Laugh Yourself Smarter
Reader's Digest India|November 2020
Humour activates our brains and enhances our well-being perhaps more than anything else
Adam Piore

By day, Ori Amir is a mild-mannered 30-something college professor. He teaches undergraduate psychology and neuroscience classes, conducts research into how the brain functions and holds regular office hours on the leafy campus of Pomona College in southern California.

But his students aren’t fooled. They’ve seen the YouTube videos, the ones that document his not-so-secret other life. In one of them, Amir is gripping a microphone and standing centre stage at the 1,400-seat Alex Theater in Glendale, California, wearing a striped rugby shirt, faded blue jeans, battered construction boots—and a ridiculously shaggy white fur coat. It’s the second night of the Glendale Laughs Comedy Festival, and Amir is grinning broadly at the audience through his ample beard, looking like a crazed six-foot-two redheaded Fozzie Bear.

“As you can tell by my accent, I’m a neuroscientist,” says Amir, who grew up in Israel. “They tell the professors at the university where I work to dress ‘business casual’. This is pretty much the best I can do. My wardrobe ranges from very casual to inappropriate.” Tonight, he’s wearing the full spectrum.

Amir likes to tell his audiences— and occasionally his students—that his dream is to become a “professional comedian and an amateur neurosurgeon.” (“That way I could cut up brains for fun!”) In fact, he has already managed to combine these seemingly unrelated passions. Amir is one of the leading researchers studying the way the brain creates and understands humour. Unless you happen to be a neuroscientist who moonlights as a comedian, that speciality might seem trivial compared with other fields of cognition. But the question of why we find things funny has fascinated philosophers for centuries.

This is a particularly exciting time for Amir and his fellow humour researchers. It has been only in the past few years that scanning technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have let us see how the brain works when it is processing information: which parts do what and what benefits might accrue from exercising different areas. It turns out that joking, long dismissed by some as a frivolous diversion from the serious business of reality, may make us smarter and healthier. There is even some evidence that a sense of humour helps the human species survive.

To understand why humour is a kind of superfood for the brain, it helps to know what our brains crave in the first place. You might think they’d prefer when we sit alone in a room and stare at a blank wall—we don’t burn up much energy doing that. But the brain is like a muscle, and it needs exercise. What gives the brain a workout? Information. When researchers asked people to look at a series of pictures while their brains were being scanned in an fMRI machine, it was the more complex images—a work of art, a sprawling vista, a group of animals—that tickled the neurons in their heads most.

It’s the activation of those neurons— nerve cells, which, among other things, send and receive sensory information—that ‘lights up’ the fMRI scans in bright, almost psychedelic colours. In fact, there is an almost druglike effect taking place. The brain is filled with opioid receptors—yes, opioid, as in the drug. Made of specialized proteins, these receptors poke out of our neurons like tiny radio antennas designed to pick up passing signals. When the right kind of molecule bumps into a receptor—perhaps one of the body’s naturally occurring opioids, such as an endorphin, or a synthetic drug designed to look like one, such as heroin or morphine—it can kick off a cascade of brain activity that bathes the neurons in feel-good neurotransmitters and other chemicals. The more neurons that are activated (and the more activated they are), the more pleasure we feel. In essence, learning and problem-solving get us high.

Charlie Chaplin’s Good Humour Theory

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