Paper published: The reward of a good joke: neural correlates of viewing dynamic displays of stand-up comedy
Humor is enjoyable, yet few studies to date have reported that humor engages brain regions involved in reward processing (i.e., the mesolimbic reward system). Even fewer have investigated socially relevant, dynamic displays of real actors telling jokes. Instead, many studies have focused on responses to static cartoons or written jokes in isolation. In the present investigation, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activation in response to video clips of comedians performing stand-up comedy, a more socially relevant task than reading jokes or cartoons in isolation. Participants watched video clips of eight stand-up comedians, half female/half male, that were prerated by a separate group of participants from the same population as eliciting either high or low levels of amusement, thereby allowing us to control for comedian attributes and comedic style. We found that high-funny clips elicited more activation in several brain regions involved with reward responses, including the nucleus accumbens, caudate, and putamen. A regression with participants’ own ratings of humor revealed similar activity in reward areas as well as in regions involved in theory of mind. These findings indicate that dynamic social displays of humor do engage rewardresponses. The rewarding nature of humor may help explain why it is so valued socially.