The Temporal Lobe: Laughing Matter

July 13, 2003

A funny joke, an amusing cartoon, a witty comedy routine: everyone likes a good laugh. What part of the brain is responsible for making these things humorous?

In 1998, researchers found evidence that part of the frontal lobe was involved with the sense of merriment, joy or "mirth." Scientists in Japan have found that the temporal lobe of the brain is also important for mirth.

The Japanese scientists performed surgery on a 24-year-old woman who had epilepsy. As part of the procedure, the surgeons stimulated the woman's brain with small electrical shocks to determine the function of each area. As each area of the brain was stimulated with an electrical shock, the reaction of the patient was observed. In this way, the scientists were able to "map" the brain, identify vital brain tissue, and avoid damaging important areas.

When the temporal lobe (inferior temporal gyrus) was shocked with small amounts of electricity, the woman said she experienced feelings of mirth. These feelings were always accompanied by a melody from a television show the woman had heard during her childhood. When the strength of the electrical shock was increased, the woman reported more intense feelings of mirth and she smiled or laughed.

Because the temporal lobes are also involved with memory, the researchers suggest that electrical stimulation of this brain area can bring back feelings of mirth and the context of these feelings (in this case, a childhood song) at the same time. In other words, it is possible that mirth and the events that cause these feelings are stored in the same place within the brain.

Reference and further information:

  1. Satow, T., Usui, K., Matsuhashi, M., Yamamoto, J., Begum, T., Shibasaki, H., Ikeda, A., Mikuni, N., Miyamoto, S., Hashimoto, N. Mirth and laughter arising from human temporal cortex. J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry, 74:1004-1005, 2003.
  2. Laughter and the Brain - from Neuroscience for Kids

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