STANFORD (CBS 5) - It has long been known that humor is an important component of emotional health, affecting relationships, brain development, and even physical health. Now, though, for the very first time, Stanford researchers have begun to understand specifically how humor activates different areas in a child's brain.
The research has important implications for understanding development. Humor is the entryway into the social world, notes neuroscientist and child psychiatrist Dr. Allan Reiss.
"How you relate to peers, how you understand your peer group, how they relate to you, whether they are accepting of your participation, and humor definitely plays a role during childhood," said Reiss. He believes that humor helps make people resilient, improving their ability to cope with stressful circumstances.
"If you can interpret a difficult situation in a humorous way, as opposed to just 'this is a terrible fate befalling me', that could make a significant difference in how your brain and body responds to the difficult situation," Reiss said.
Findings reported in the "Journal of Neuroscience" show that some of the same brain circuitry that responds to humor in adults already exists in 6 to 12 year-olds.
"(It is) in a less mature state than adults, but it is already present in children ages 6-12," said Reiss, senior author of the study. "That's really interesting."
For the study, children watched short video clips while their brains were scanned with functional MRI. In children, as with adults, the funny videos activated the brain's mesolimbic regions - the area that processes rewards.
Reiss said that comes as no surprise given "that people go to comedy clubs, they seek out humor in their personal lives, they look for companions or mates that have a good sense of humor."
There was also high activity at the temporal-occipital-parietal junction, a brain region that processes incongruity or surprise. "A lot of humor is, in fact, incongruity," explained Reiss. "So you expect something to happen and then all of a sudden there's a twist, something completely different happens and that's what makes many jokes really funny."
Reiss speculates that people who handle humorous surprises well probably do a better job coping with life's unexpected challenges. He believes this study opens the door to additional research on the development of humor.
"How does a brain that processes humor more effectively, or more robustly, correlate with a child's quality of life, with temperament, with adaptation to stress?"
As to whether some people are just born with a great sense of humor, Reiss said probably not. Sense of humor, like other complex human traits, is part nature, part nurture. You might have a biological predisposition, but with the right environment you can also refine it. In other words, there's hope for all of us. Given the stressful times, we might all benefit from a little more humor.
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