Kids may not giggle over the awkwardness on "The Office," and adults usually aren't all that tickled by Elmo. But new research shows that the same brain regions are active when both children and grown ups find something funny.
Researchers at Stanford University have shown that the brain's network for appreciating humor develops in childhood. They studied 15 children ages 6 to 12, showing them clips from "America's Funniest Home Videos," like people stumbling while skiing or running, animals doing tricks or a kid being catapulted off of an inflatable couch. (To be sure the videos would be funny to kids and not just scientists, the researchers first had children of the same ages rate videos as funny or not.)
While the kids were watching the videos, researchers were monitoring their brain activity using technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The results, published today in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that funny videos turned on kids' brains in two key areas – the temporo-occipito-parietal junction, or TOPJ, an area located just above the ear, and the midbrain, an area deep inside the brain near the bottom of the skull. The fact that these areas were more active during funny videos and not just positive ones shows that these areas are distinctly part of the brain's humor network.
Dr. Allan Reiss, one of the study's authors, has researched how humor lights up adult brains, and he said the same areas that lit up when kids were laughing were also active when adults found something funny. One of the brain regions tickled by humor, the TOPJ, helps humans perceive and appreciate the unexpected things in life. Reiss said that could be one reason why humor is often cited as a major stress reliever.
"A lot of humor is setting up a joke or something funny and then giving the punch line, often going in an unexpected direction," Reiss said. "One of the reasons why a good sense of humor might serve as a means of stress reduction is that many times stress comes from incongruities in our daily lives."
The other brain region that lit up when kids viewed the funny videos, the midbrain, is the area of the brain that helps humans process rewarding feelings, which could explain why just the right joke can be a quick way to improve a bad day. The younger children in the study showed more activity in this rewarding area of the brain.
"That may well be because of the type of stimuli that we used," Reiss said. "The younger children probably found those videos funnier."
The study is the first to look at how kids' brains detect and appreciate humor. Dr. Rebecca Schrag, a child psychologist at the Healthy Steps Program at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y., said the fact that the brain is hard-wired for humor gives humans an important tool for coping with life.
"Humor isn't just a casual thing you do at a dinner party. It has been shown to be a factor that can contribute to resilience," she said. "Being able to see the humor in stressful situations, to see the upside of things, to be able to laugh at yourself or things that are difficult has been shown to contribute to positive development."
Reiss said he hopes to learn more about how children develop senses of humor, and how that impacts their experiences in life.
"Humor is a ubiquitous part of our social lives. Clearly, children who have well-developed senses of humor and can use them appropriately often are quite successful," Reiss said.