Mind & Body

Understanding Puns Means Both Sides of Your Brain Are Working Together

Did you hear about the scarecrow that got an award? He was outstanding in his field. No, we won't apologize for that atrocious joke. After all, we were just giving your brain an impromptu teamwork exercise. As it turns out, when a pun hits your cranium, it needs both sides of your brain to work together to help you get it.

A New Pun-derstanding

Before we go too far, let's get one thing clear — or unclear, as the case may be. Whether or not there's any substantial difference between the right and left brain, and to what degree that difference is expressed, is a matter of much debate. One thing pretty much everyone agrees on, though, is that there's not much to the idea that the left brain is organized and logical and the right brain is creative and emotional. Still, research has indicated that some skills may tend to locate themselves in one side or another. Language, specifically, seems to prefer the left side, although those centers are on the opposite side in about five percent of right-handed people and 30 percent of left-handed people. Since we do know that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa, that suggests that language might have a soft preference for the side of the brain that gets the better workout.

Thanks to a new study by Tara McHugh and Lori Buchanan from the University of Windsor, we now can say there's another skill that has a soft tendency towards one side: understanding puns. For the study, the researchers gathered as many amazing puns as they could. Then they showed the jokes to their participants, keeping them in the visual field of only one eye. That's because if a joke lands in the right eye, it'll make it to the left brain first, and vice versa. When the joke hit the left brain first, people reacted to the joke faster, suggesting that the left side of the brain (remember, that's the side that tends to have the language skills) is better at joke processing than the right side. However, that wasn't the whole story.

Great Right Snark

While the left side of the brain was better at "getting" the pun, the right side was the one that actually found them funny. The idea is that while the left side, with its powerful language abilities, is best equipped to actually understand the joke, the right side is the one that comes in with the alternative interpretation of the words that lends the joke its laughs. Speaking with Scientific American, Buchanan noted how this is in line with previous studies that showed people with right brain damage might understand a joke's meaning but "don't think things are funny anymore."

That's based on a theory of humor known as "benign violation." Basically, it states that jokes are funny because the set-up gives the listener a certain expectation, but the punchline twists that expectation in a way that's both transgressive and relatively harmless. If it's the right side of the brain that fills in the twist part, then that would explain why a person with right brain damage would have a hard time finding something to laugh at. Well, if comedy can't be found in the brain, then maybe it lives in the humerus instead.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas June 22, 2018

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