Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Friday, March 9, 2012

The Mental Machinations of Humor

A couple of blogs back, I got into humor and how laughter can pick you up and help you make it through trying times.  If you go to the “archives” on my blog and look under “Random Thoughts” you can find a piece I wrote on Norman Cousins and how he used laughterto heal himself of a terminal disease. It’s an amazing story.

Maybe it’s all the negativism that bombards us daily, but I’ve begun to think that humor actually is a survival mechanism. I’ve developed a curiosity as to how it actually works and the affect it has on the mind, the body, and on those around us. Maybe it’s my psychology degree and my interest in human behavior and social trends, but the more I think about it, the more important being able to laugh seems to be in today’s world.

            Is humor and laughter innate in our genetic makeup?  Has it always been a defining characteristic of human beings? How far back can we trace laughter?

            My personal guess is that laughter has been with us since human beings first discovered they were naked. 

            It seems that humor may have its origins simultaneously with mankind’s origins.  You can watch a National Geographic documentary featuring a primitive tribe somewhere in Brazil where natives are squatting around a fire. They may be swatting flies and chomping on a dead monkey, but sooner or later someone will smile with a monkey tail hanging from his teeth. This precipitates a chuckle here and there, until finally everyone is laughing and tossing monkey parts at each other.

Someday archeologists may discover cave paintings depicting one caveman slamming a mammoth pie in the face of another caveman. Or another that clearly depicts a Neanderthal trying to entice his buddy to pull his finger.  True primitive humor.

Let’s just assume that humor is universal and that one of the first human beings on earth laughed when he saw his buddy dragging a woman to his cave by her hair. Or maybe it was the woman laughing.

If you click on the “read more” link here and go to the next page, I’ll explain how the brain actually processes humor. It’s quite interesting.

Here’s how the brain actually works when you laugh at a joke.

When humorous stimuli hit the brain, this is what happens.  In less than a half-second an electrical wave moves through the higher brain functions of the cerebral cortex. This is the part of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions. We all know about the “right brain – left brain” stuff. In the case of humor, the left hemisphere analyzes the words and the structure of a joke or humorous event.  That’s the “logical” side. Then the right hemisphere “gets it.” That’s the “creative” side.

The right hemisphere appears to be involved in the interpretation of emotional material present linguistically and when it “gets it” the process accelerates.  The right hemisphere actually determines if something is funny or not.

The visual sensory area of the occipital lobe creates images. I would think the images are a critical link in the chain. Then the limbic or “emotional” system provides pleasure or happiness and the motor systems make you smile or laugh. The “motor” may run at higher RPM’s in some folks than others. But the process is a chain reaction.

All you really need to know is that humor engages the whole brain. Consequently creativity is enhanced, intelligence is exercised, logic is put to a test, and all cylinders are firing in the brain. The analytical left brain gets the help of the right brain for humor and creativity.  I’ve always believed that music also ties both hemispheres together.  (That’s a good subject for another blog)

Even a simple joke can involve abstract thinking, symbolism, language skills, social perception and other factors.  Some have said that humor may be our most complex cognitive attribute, so intelligence does play a role. 

Despite the complexity of the process, humor is reflexive. That is to say, people laugh without consideration of the causal factors. So the moral of the story is to laugh and don’t worry about where and how the laugh got started. Just enjoy it. 

If nothing else, we can always laugh at ourselves. That may actually be the healthiest thing we can do anyway. And it’s very easy.


  1. Well I guess we comment more on topics like your scandalous New Orleans escapades. But I still enjoy the deeper ones like this one about humor. I find too that it is easy to laugh at myself since most people, including my wife, find me easy to laugh at.

  2. I noticed the same thing, Malcolm. I guess the lighter stuff is more fun. I got into the whole concept of humor and its benefits as a result of the anger, depression and stress I see everywhere. I think humor and laughter is needed now more than ever, but I think it was Mark Twain who said dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog. You end up with a dead frog...or something like that.

  3. I am driving to Crescent City today. It gives me about 9 hours to figure this one out! I think I may be the dead frog!