What Shapes a Child’s Sense of Humor?

credit: Henri GerbaultCNS 2014 Blog

You see a man in a tight-fitting scuba diving outfit approach the water and slip and fall – pretty funny stuff, right? New research tested this bit on children to see how their brains respond to humor. While the children found it funny, kids who rated themselves as having a lower sense of humor had to work much harder to get the bit than those who rated themselves more highly. The new work also found that children’s humor styles trend more with dad’s humor than mom’s.

Humor can be a very complex and hard concept for some kids to grasp, said Jessica M. Black of the Graduate School of Social Work Boston College, speaking yesterday about her poster on this new work at the CNS meeting in Boston. It requires people to both detect and resolve incongruities and to find amusement – involving many regions of the brain, including those that process cognitive computations and those that process emotions.

Black, along with Allan L. Reiss and Pascal Vrticka, conducted a study with 22 children aged 6- to 13-years-old to see how these brain regions activated when seeing either a funny video, like the one described above, a positive video (think: a kid weaving down a soccer field to score an unlikely goal), or a neutral one. Building on past work on children and humor, they set up the three conditions to test the effects of humor above and beyond just liking a video.

Jessica Black at CNS 2014 in Boston; copyright: Lisa M.P. MunozBefore observing the children’s brain activity in the fMRI scanner, the researchers asked the participants to rate their own sense of humor – both in terms of creating humor and appreciating it – on a well-known survey used in past experiments. They wanted to see how the brains of children who rated themselves high in sense of humor compared to those who rated themselves low.

In general, the researchers found greater brain activity in children who rated themselves low on the sense of humor scale. The systems related to detecting incongruities and those involved in language and working memory had to ramp up to process the funny videos, as did the arousal network that is usually more active when processing negative emotional information. Interestingly, the brain activity related to social processing was lower in these children, suggesting perhaps more difficulty in being able to think about the mental state of others.

Their results suggest that children with a low sense of humor may require more cognitive effort to process humor, Black said. The data also imply that children with a low sense of humor may experience stress and increased levels of arousal during social interactions involving humor.

An exploratory component of the study looked at parental humor styles – asking parents of the participants to rate their humor styles as well. The researchers found that children’s humor appreciation trended positively with several humor styles reported by their fathers but they found no positive associations with their mothers’. In particular, children’s humor appreciation trended with their fathers’ positive humor styles, including: “affiliation” humor, which is when we use humor to connect socially with others, and “self-enhancing humor,” which is when we use humor to make ourselves feel better. There was also a strong positive link between children’s use of humor as a coping mechanism and fathers’ “aggressive” humor, which aims to put people down.

The study thus illuminates some gender differences in humor, and suggests that how humor gets passed on generation to generation is mostly dependent on dad versus mom. The data also provide some tie-in to evolutionary theories about the purpose of humor, Black said. One theory postulates that humor styles are related to selection of mates. Black explained: “Findings from other humor research suggest that in romantic contexts, females tend to ‘evaluate,’ while males ‘produce’ humorous offerings, and that women’s romantic interest is predicted by evaluations of potential mates’ humor.”

-Lisa M.P. Munoz

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This work, presented at the CNS annual meeting in Boston, was conducted at the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research, directed by Allan L. Reiss, at Stanford University School of Medicine. It was partly financed by a grant from the Stanford and Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health to A.L.R, the National Institute of Mental Health to Reiss to support a T32 postdoctoral fellowship for Jessica Black, and an Advanced Postdoc.Mobility fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation (nr. 136480) to Pascal Vrticka.