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What Makes a Pun Funny?

My name is Ginny and I’m an adult pun-lover. When I hear a good one — Photons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic! — I don’t roll my eyes or smirk. I double over laughing, like a 7-year-old.

What is it exactly that makes a pun funny (at least to those of us who humbly accept the power of the pun)?

That’s the underlying question of a brain imaging study I came across last week. Its pretty pictures don’t answer the question, really, but they’re interesting all the same. And provocative: the data could have way-down-the-road relevance for communicating with people in vegetative states.

The researchers, led by Adrian Owen at the University of Western Ontario, focused on three types of jokes:

Regular joke: Why did Cleopatra bathe in milk? Because she couldn’t find a cow tall enough for a shower.

Funny pun: Why were the teacher’s eyes crossed? Because she couldn’t control her pupils.

Unfunny pun: What was the problem with the other coat? It was difficult to put on with the paint-roller.

The regular joke and the funny pun are both amusing, but for different reasons: in the decidedly unfunny parlance of humor theorists, the pun has “semantic ambiguity” and the joke does not. Part of the fun in the funny pun, in other words, is thinking through the two meanings of pupil.

But now compare the funny pun and the unfunny pun. Both have semantic ambiguity. So why is the funny one funny? The researchers say it’s because both meanings of the ambiguous word (pupil) are true at the same time, whereas in the unfunny pun, only one of the meanings of the ambiguous word (coat) is true.

Reading each joke produces a distinct cognitive experience, at least for me. So I’d guess that my brain is doing a different kind of processing for each. The study investigated this using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures blood flow (and therefore, indirectly, neuron activity) in the brain. A dozen adult volunteers rolled on their backs into the scanner and listened to recordings of jokes and sentences read out loud as the machine recorded their brain activity.

Humor is complicated, apparently. Many, many areas of the brain light up more during jokes (regular or puns) than non-jokes, the study found. These include the amygdala, which processes emotions, the hypothalamus, which is responsible for a lot of automatic processes, like temperature and hormone control, and the ventral striatum, which is involved in the reward system. The jokes, as Neuroskeptic put it, “sent the brain into overdrive.”

But the most interesting data concerns a little-known brain region called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), a ridge on the bottom half of the frontal lobe. The left IFG lights up more during funny puns than regular jokes, and shows more activity during funny puns than unfunny puns, the study found. So this tiny little area, it seems, is the part of our brain that distinguishes between funny and unfunny, at least in these participants and for these kinds of jokes.

Of course, pinpointing the regions of the brain that process humor doesn’t tell us why we experience jokes as funny, as the researchers readily admit. But it could be useful for something far more important, in my opinion.

The reason I found the study, which was published back in June, is because I’ve been thinking a lot about what brain imaging can and cannot tell us. The lead investigator, Adrian Owen, made headlines several years ago for demonstrating an incredible application of fMRI: using brain activity to communicate with people whose active minds are trapped inside of inactive bodies.

In 2006, Owen reported in Science that when a woman in a vegetative state was put in a brain scanner and asked to think about playing tennis or walking around her house, these thoughts lit up predictable areas of her brain. Then last year, in the New England Journal of Medicine, Owen showed that a seemingly unconscious man could answer yes or no questions by mentally acting out the tennis scene for ‘yes’ or the house-walking for ‘no’.

In news stories about this research, the question that came up over and over again was whether a doctor could use this method to ask patients whether they wanted to be taken off life support. An ethical minefield, right?

In order for that to be permissible, you’d have to show (among many, many other things, I’d hope) that the person can not only answer relatively simple, objective questions, but can grapple with much more complex thinking, such as the consequences of their decision and their feelings about it.

That’s where the jokes come in: humor is not simple. If researchers could figure out a way to tap into various humor circuits with jokes, could they gauge the emotional capacity of an unconscious patient?

“That’s actually the sole reason for doing this study,” Owen told a reporter in July. “We need a way to try to access emotions in comatose and vegetative states.”

The study came out back in June, and of course Neuroskeptic was all over it. The post is worth reading: one of the study’s authors, Matthew Davis, left an interesting comment.

Photo depicts comedian Jessica Kirson, as captured by the inimitable Brian Friedmancartoon brain from Wikipedia

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

18 thoughts on “What Makes a Pun Funny?

  1. Fascinating piece, Ginny! The idea that brain imaging can show *that* people are having complex thoughts even if they cannot communicate them is quite welcome. But I have to admit that the notion that imaging might one day show *what* people are thinking seems rather dystopian to me, to be honest. I know that tennis = yes/house walking = no is several steps away from that, but still, the surveillance possibilities that this line of research could open up are chilling.

    On a lighter note, though, it would be interesting to see how brain activity differs in people who find puns funny and those who do not. Clearly it would be beneficial to pinpoint the source of abnormal function in the latter group.

  2. Amen, Sarah! The thought of using this in lie detection, court rooms, etc. is scary.

    But this seems like a worthwhile application of fMRI. I mean, is there anything more terrifying than the idea of being “locked in” to an uncommunicative body??

    There’s a great 2007 article from the New Yorker that gets into different states of consciousness (although this was published before the 2010 study came out showing that the patient could answer yes/no questions). The last sentence is haunting:


  3. Very interesting article Viginia. I’m a pun lover and yet I find that if I am subjected to a long series of puns they cease to hold the same impact. After the tenth pun in a row I still find them interesting but not necessarily funny. That holds true even if I would normally find the tenth pun very funny. Perhaps my IFG gets tired. Even if the puns are no longer funny to me I still have an appreciation of the skill of the punster.

  4. Liath,

    That may be due to a phenomenon called habituation, which happens in most (all?) parts of the brain. Basically, the 3rd, 4th, 10th time a neuron processes a stimulus, it fires at a much lower rate than it did the first time. You can test this by pushing a pen against your arm and keeping it there. After awhile, you don’t even notice it’s there.

    I’m not sure if that accounts for your pun fatigue, but maybe!

    Thanks for reading!

  5. You’re probably right on the mark Virginia. I once wrote a series of 50+/- Tom Swifties. The same thing happened to the folks I read them to. They laughed at the first three and after that they smiled and nodded. The more I read the less they smiled and nodded. Before long they quit smiling and walked away. Some of them still avoid me as though they were frightened I would tell them more Swifties. I not only habituated them to Swifties, I habituated them to ME. Perhaps, someday their neurons will recover and they won’t flinch when they see me coming.

  6. Something must be wrong with my sense of humor because I found the “unfunny” pun funny. It plays with the two uses of “coat” — either something you wear or a coat of paint. So is it unfunny because the alternate meanings of “coat” differ in frequency of usage; i.e., do many people not recognize the second meaning?

    This was a very interesting discussion; thanks for posting it.

    In closing I’d like to quote a favorite comic of mine, Emo Phillips: “My brother says ‘hello’. So much for three years of speech therapy.”

  7. I think the idea of putting on a coat (outerwear) with a paint roller just doesn’t work. It’s true that for both types of puns, your brain has to consider both meanings of the words. But in the unfunny pun, the two meanings of coat (outerwear and paint) are not TRUE at the same time. In the funny pun, however, both meanings of pupil are true at the same time.

  8. Thanks for this. Another difference between the ‘unfunny’ and ‘funny’ pun not noted is the semantically ambiguous word coming in the Punchline of the ‘funny’ but in the ‘unfunny’ it comes in the Setup. This also impacts the enjoyment the listener has at the reveal since it’s less complex (and thus less work they have to do to process it) than it could be otherwise.

    1. Great point, Brett. If I remember the study correctly, the authors actually controlled for this — so they’d actually compare funny puns and unfunny puns with the same punchline structure. (They used dozens of different jokes.) Unfortunately I didn’t think to do so with my examples here. Thanks for the close read!

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