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Your Brain Recognizes a Good Joke

February 26, 2001|Rosie Mestel

Have you ever wondered what's going on in your brain when your wag of a brother-in-law tells you one of his knee-slapper jokes? Like: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

Or: A man walks into a doctor's office with a cucumber up his nose, a carrot in his left ear and a banana in his right ear. "What's the matter with me?" he asks. "You're not eating properly," says the doctor. (This and much more at, a Web page devoted to doctor jokes.)

Back to your brain. Call it a hunch, but I'm willing to bet that when you read those two jokes, your medial ventral prefrontal cortex lit up like a Christmas tree. That is, if the jokes didn't make you weep.

All right, all right, so it wasn't a hunch, it was a tip-off from the journal Nature Neuroscience, hot off the presses Monday. In it, researchers Vinod Goel and Raymond Dolan (of York University in Toronto and the Institute of Neurology in London) report a fun experiment about jokes.

Here's how it went. Fourteen volunteers had their brains scanned while they listened to corkers like: What do engineers use for birth control? Their personalities. And: Why did the golfer wear two sets of pants? He got a hole in one.

Then Goel and Dolan looked to see what parts of these folks' brains became active when the volunteers heard a joke they thought was funny. No laughing: That would jiggle the head around and create a fuzzy brain image. But the jokes were ranked on a "funniness" scale of 1 to 5.

Goel and Dolan found that several parts of people's brain got especially active when the jokes were told. But which parts depended on the type of joke. Jokes with puns--such as the one about the golfer--activated parts of the brain that deal with how words sound. Jokes such as the engineer one (which we hope our engineer readers will take in good spirit) activated areas of the brain dealing with meaning of language.

Both kinds of jokes lit up a third area of the brain: the medial ventral prefrontal cortex, an area linked to feeling a reward sensation when--for instance--people use drugs or eat yummy foods. The funnier the joke, the scientists found, the more that region lit up.

And guess what? This same brain area is often damaged in patients who can no longer appreciate humor. (But don't worry: Failing to laugh at a hilarious lightbulb joke doesn't automatically mean that your brain is at fault.)

Samson a Sociopath? So, Who Knew?

So you've read that Van Gogh had psychological issues, and that President Lincoln had a skeletal ailment called Marfan's syndrome. The latest famous figure to get diagnosed: Samson. As in Delilah. (You know, Judges 1, Chapters 13-16.)

That's right! Samson very likely had "antisocial personality disorder," says Dr. Eric Altschuler, a physician and research fellow in the Department of Psychology at UC San Diego. The signs are clear.

According to the psychiatrists' own bible, DSM-IV, which describes psychiatric conditions, there are seven signs for ASPD. To be diagnosed, you only need to score positive on three. Altschuler and colleagues, writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry, say Samson scored positive for six.

Torching the Philistines' fields and resisting arrest are clear signs that Samson failed to conform to social norms, for instance. And Samson was comfortable with lying (never told his parents about killing that lion), had a reckless disregard for others' safety (such as pulling down a packed temple), was impulsive; showed no remorse for acts like killing more than 1,000 people--plus he set fires, was cruel to animals, stole, bullied, got into fights and more.

One doesn't have to be a total cynic to question the point of diagnosing very possibly mythical people. But Altschuler says that it's useful: "Appreciation of the diagnosis of ASPD for Samson may not only help us to better understand the biblical story, but it also may increase our understanding and awareness of instances when a leader has ASPD," he says.

Um, OK, maybe I'll buy that. I'm sure that many a political leader has some kind of screw loose. Which is even less funny than a lightbulb joke.


If you have an idea for a topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012,

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