Is Humor as Pleasureable as Drugs?

The chapter on The Pleasure (and Pain) of Maybe sparked my interest in that it related well to the research I’m doing for the book project.  Specifically mirth or appreciation of a “funny” joke activates the same structures in the dopaminergic mesolimbic pathway as cocaine.  Although the specific studies I looked at examined activation of these regions in direct response to a reward, as opposed to in anticipation of a reward, I still felt that this data was relevant.

At first I thought that this activation might explain why the act of smiling or laughing has positive effects on mood, but the fact that mesolimbic activity was positively correlated with how funny a joke was perceived to be cast doubt on this hypothesis.   This correlation seems to reflect the manner in which the subjective experience of humor, regardless of the physical expression of that humor, activates the pathway thus leading to positive affect.  As the study was conducted using MRI techniques, this hypothesis seems likely, considering that it would be difficult to laugh heartily in such a confined space.  With this hypothesis in mind, perhaps the dopamine is released in this pathway during laughter or smiling, in anticipation of some funny stimuli, as in the James Lange theory in which a physical reaction causes an emotion.

On a related note, a popular humor theory rests on the concept of incongruity resolution.  Basically the set up of a joke creates some sort of incongruity that makes the statement illogical and the punchline resolves this discrepancy in an unexpected way.  Because the stimuli used in this study were cartoons, this format of joke is likely the kind used.  Anyway the point is that if a participant anticipates a “better” punchline, perhaps because of greater incongruity in the set up, he or she might release more dopamine and subsequently perceive the joke to be funnier simply because there is more positive affect associated with it.

This is obviously all speculation, but I thought it was interesting to consider.

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