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30.05.2023 | י סיון התשפג

The Neurological Basis of Humor Appreciation: Insights from a Charlie Chaplin Movie

New study led by Dr. Vadim Axelrod, of BIU’s Brain Center, decodes the brain signature of humor

Vadim Axelrod

In a study published in Neuropsychologia, researchers from Bar-Ilan University, in collaboration with the Paris Brain Institute, delved into the neurological underpinnings of humor experienced during movie viewing. By examining intracranial neural responses among moviegoers, the team discovered a distinctive cerebral electrical orchestration associated with the funniest sequences in Charlie Chaplin’s film. These results pave the way for better understanding mechanisms of humor appreciation.

The Importance of Understanding Humor

Humor plays a vital role in our lives, alleviating interpersonal tensions, reducing stress, mitigating physical and emotional distress, and even bolstering our immune response. Given its significance, it is imperative to understand the cognitive and neuronal mechanisms that underlie this remarkable facet of human experience. However, humor itself appears to be heavily influenced by culture, era, and context. Hence, the challenge lies in generalizing the functioning of humor across diverse populations.

A Universal Aspect of Humor

Lionel Naccache, a specialist in the exploration of human consciousness and co-leader of the PICNIC team at the Paris Brain Institute, who collaborated on this research, emphasizes that non-verbal humor, such as gesticulations, falls, unwarranted blows, or imitations, holds comic appeal for a significant portion of humanity. Physical comedy, epitomized by slapstick, burlesque, clowning, and mime, permeates cultures worldwide. This universality is exemplified in the timeless silent films of Charlie Chaplin, which consistently evoke laughter irrespective of cultural backgrounds.

Novel Research Approach

Seeking to unravel the neural substrates of humor, the researchers from the Paris Brain Institute and Bar-Ilan University capitalized on the tremendous comic prowess of Chaplin's antics, employing a novel research tool. While functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been the conventional technique in humor-related research, it fails to capture the complete spectrum of electromagnetic waves generated by the brain, leading to some information loss.

Delving Deeper into Comedy

To bridge this gap in understanding, the research team conducted an analysis of intracerebral electrophysiological recordings, enabling direct observation of neuronal activity with high spatial and temporal precision at the millisecond scale across multiple cortical areas. Thirteen patients with epilepsy, who had undergone deep brain electrode implantation as part of a pre-surgical assessment, were enlisted for the study. The patients were asked to watch a three-minute excerpt from Charlie Chaplin's Circus (1928) while their brain activity was recorded in real-time. Prior to the experiment, the amusing or non-amusing nature of each scene was meticulously assessed frame by frame by a group of healthy volunteers.

Key Findings

Comparing the neural activity recorded during the funniest and least funny scenes, the researchers made intriguing observations. "The funniest sequences were associated with an increase in high-frequency gamma waves and a decrease in low-frequency waves. Conversely, less amusing scenes demonstrated the opposite pattern,” explains Dr. Axelrod, who led the experiment.

These results suggest that high-frequency neural activity, typically associated with cognitively engaging tasks such as work, is also indicative of humor appreciation. In contrast, scenes lacking humor, such as transitional sequences devoid of action, tend to promote inattention, introspection, and a preponderance of low-frequency waves.