Sunday, February 14, 2010

Music and Humor

As an undergraduate back in the 60's taking a course in abnormal psychology I needed a question to study as a project. Being curious as to what exactly laughter and humor were all about, I chose that, only to discover nobody really had much of a clue. The most recent writing on the subject was by Henri Bergson, who was something of a contemporary and an influence on Marcel Proust. There were no modern empirical data to be found.

Turns out the new brain imaging is finally coming up with answers, as outlined in this article which I found via Arts and Letters Daily.

It also turns out music and humor trigger some of the same areas of the brain.

Examining one particular part of the limbic system - the ventral striatum - was especially revealing, as its level of activity corresponded with the perceived funniness of a joke. "It's the same region that is involved in many different types of reward, from drugs, to sex and our favourite music," says Mobbs, now at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. "Humour thus taps into basic rewards systems that are important to our survival."

Another interesting bit the research has uncovered is how we're all wired differently for humor, much as I suspect we are for our reactions to music.

No two brains are the same, however, and how these differences are reflected in our sense of humour is the subject of much research. Men and women, for example, seem to process jokes slightly differently. . . . Perhaps unsurprisingly, personality also appears to play a key role in humour. Mobbs has shown that people who are classed as extrovert and emotionally stable have increased activity in reward areas of the brain during exposure to funny stimuli. Neurotic people, in contrast, have less of a reward response compared with the average person.


  1. There is more and more research that links many learning and developmental difficulties to poor communication and synchronisation between the two brain halves. An effective way of improving the processing functions in the brain is to listen to specially altered sound or music through headphones as pioneered by Dr. Alfred Tomatis (Tomatis method) and Dr. Guy Bérard (Auditory
    Integration Training - AIT).

    Now there is a new Sound Therapy Programme which has been specifically developed with the aim to improve sensory processing, interhemispheric integration and cognitive functioning and it is entirely free to download and use at home. It has helped many children and adults with a wide range of learning and developmental difficulties, ranging from dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder to sensory processing disorders and autism. It is not a cure or medical intervention, but a structured training programme that can help alleviate some of the debilitating effects that these conditions can have on speech and physical ability, daily behaviour, emotional well-being and educational or work performance.

    Check out the Free Sound Therapy Home Programme from Sensory Activation Solutions. There is no catch, it's absolutely free and most importantly often effective. Find it at:

  2. Stefan - Thanks for that comment. Have been aware of Tomatis for years and read a book by or about him way back when, along with some critical articles. I decided to wait and see, because if it really worked it would surely spread. Hadn't heard of AIT. Thanks for that link there at the end.

    If you don't know of them, you might be interested in the Monroe Institute where they put different sounds through the two sides of the headphone to create altered states in the listener (I think they use a trademarked term "hemisynch"). Not the same thing at all, but sort of over in the same territory.

    Since getting my credential back in 1980, my focus has been on helping people actually make music as opposed to listening to either something like what you're talking about or the whole field of guided imagery. If I were starting out today, and had the requisite science background, might make a different decision. All these brain studies are changing everything by giving so much concrete information about how the brain/mind works. Thanks for the tip.

  3. Anonymous20/2/10 17:44

    We watched a video in one of my speech-language pathology classes that showed how areas all over the brain light up when involved in music. They showed an elderly lady with alzheimers who couldn't remember her own name, but when they started playing an old hymn, she started singing and never missed a word. It was just amazing.

  4. Hi, Sarah! You're so right. One of the hospice clients I volunteer with is an end stage Alzheimer's patient and his wife and the care-giver both say he's responding to the music better than just about anything else.

    There are some posts here under the "medicine" tag on Alzheimer's and music research, but you've said it all with, "areas all over the brain light up when involved in music".

    All the best to you and yours.