Right hemisphere has the last laugh: neural dynamics of joke appreciation

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2011 Mar;11(1):113-30. doi: 10.3758/s13415-010-0017-7.


Understanding a joke relies on semantic, mnemonic, inferential, and emotional contributions from multiple brain areas. Anatomically constrained magnetoencephalography (aMEG) combining high-density whole-head MEG with anatomical magnetic resonance imaging allowed us to estimate where the humor-specific brain activations occur and to understand their temporal sequence. Punch lines provided either funny, not funny (semantically congruent), or nonsensical (incongruent) replies to joke questions. Healthy subjects rated them as being funny or not funny. As expected, incongruous endings evoke the largest N400m in left-dominant temporo-prefrontal areas, due to integration difficulty. In contrast, funny punch lines evoke the smallest N400m during this initial lexical-semantic stage, consistent with their primed "surface congruity" with the setup question. In line with its sensitivity to ambiguity, the anteromedial prefrontal cortex may contribute to the subsequent "second take" processing, which, for jokes, presumably reflects detection of a clever "twist" contained in the funny punch lines. Joke-selective activity simultaneously emerges in the right prefrontal cortex, which may lead an extended bilateral temporo-frontal network in establishing the distant unexpected creative coherence between the punch line and the setup. This progression from an initially promising but misleading integration from left frontotemporal associations, to medial prefrontal ambiguity evaluation and right prefrontal reprocessing, may reflect the essential tension and resolution underlying humor.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Male
  • Nonlinear Dynamics*
  • Semantics
  • Signal Detection, Psychological / physiology
  • Time Factors
  • Wit and Humor as Topic*
  • Young Adult