Science and humour Inspire article

Find out the link between science and humour with these light-hearted resources. 

Two atoms run into each other in the street.

“Are you OK?”

“No, I’ve lost an electron.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive!”

As well as being a good topic for jokes, there’s another link between science and humour, and it’s not just about using science to find the world’s funniest joke. Why do we laugh? What happens inside our brains when we find something funny? Do men and women react differently to humour? These are all questions that are being answered by science.

Image courtesy of Donnie Ray Jones; image source: Flickr 

Laughter is infectious, universal, and unique to humans. It’s also incredibly useful, explains Sophie Scott who works on the neuroscience of laughter at University College London (UCL) in the UK. We might think we laugh at jokes, but we laugh mainly to interact with other people – it’s a very social behaviour.

The purpose of humour, as Robin Dunbar says in his TED talk, is to help form relationships. Monkeys and apes spend 20% of their day grooming in order to bond their social groups, and laughter, like social grooming, facilitates bonding. When we watch the same funny video for example, we are four times more likely to laugh in a group, than when we are alone. We even laugh when we don’t understand the joke – we are primed to join in the laughter.

Did you laugh reading the science joke above? Experiment and see if your students laugh when you tell it in a group. Does one sex laugh at the joke more than the other? Or do students of different ages react differently? Allan Reiss explains why responses of men and women to humour differ, and suggests a classroom experiment to discover what sort of humour appeals to different ages.

Conversely, telling a baby the same joke is unlikely to elicit a response, unless you pair it with a game of peekaboo, or tickling. Dr Caspar Addyman, the psychologist behind ‘The Baby Laughter project’ has undertaken the world’s largest survey of what makes babies laugh thanks to more than 1000 parents around the world. He shows that laughing baby videos are not just restricted to YouTube; they are a great way to study the workings of the human brain.  



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