Where does comedy originate? In the brain Just above the right ear- time.news

Where do the irresistible gags of the best comedians come from? Californian researchers from the Universities of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, directed by Ori Amir, discovered it, using functional magnetic resonance, in a study whose results were published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience: the source of comic creativity is located at the level of the temples just above the right ear in the cerebral area known with the acronym TOJ, an acronym for temporal-occipital junction. In professional comedians, TOJ appears more developed. But does this come from continuous exercise or because comedians are born?

The experiment

The study gives an ambiguous answer: exercise seems to prevail over talent, but comedy can be reached in a different way, using different brain areas and therefore a direct comparison is impossible. To try to understand something more, the researchers started from a cartoon by Robert Mankoff published on 23 September 2002 in the NewYorker Magazine, which portrays a couple sitting in front of the desk of a doctor behind which stands the inscription: «Marriage counseling». The doctor’s comic said, “It’s a little embarrassing for me. The one her husband cheated on her with is me. The consultation fee is still $ 200 in any case. ” After deleting the therapist’s words, the researchers asked 40 subjects (13 professional comedians, 9 young aspiring theater actors and 18 college students used as “control”) to invent a comic phrase for the empty comic in half an hour. or neutral or nothing at all if the situation did not inspire them.

The evaluations

For an objective evaluation a “handicap” was assigned to be deducted at the end of the test, so as to bring everyone to the same level: 0 points for students, 1 point for aspiring actors and professional comedians 2 or 3 points depending on their experience. Even invented phrases were judged on a four-point scale: “it’s not funny”, “it’s a little funny”, “it’s pretty funny” and “it’s funny”. In the end, the subjects had to indicate which phrases were most impressed by their comedy. As they performed the task, their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Active and passive comedy

The so-called active comedy was compared with the passive one and we saw how the brain works in creating and then judging a comic situation according to experience or an innate comic streak. It was thus observed that professional comedians use TOJ more than others, who instead mainly exploit two other brain areas called mPFC and Striatum. The mPFC, acronym for medial prefrontal cortex, is located roughly under the hairline of the forehead and is considered fundamental for creativity in general, from musical to pictorial. The striatum is the main neuronal entrance agglomeration of the basal ganglia, located deep in the center of the brain. Important for the planning and modulation of movements, the striatum is also involved in executive functions, that is, those related to complex, new tasks or the result of a difficult decision-making process. Its lesion is characteristic in Parkinson’s disease where, in addition to giving motor problems, it compromises (as indicated on the Journal of Neurolinguistics in 2014) also the ability to understand the double meanings of jokes. Linked to compensation mechanisms, it is activated in response to gratifications.

Fun effect

Being able to “get out of one’s head”, as they say in theater schools, is certainly gratifying, but comedians seem to use little of both the mPCF and the Striato. To gratify them we think another mechanism discovered in this study and that the authors have called the “fun effect”: even before taking shape in the TOJ the sentences that were later found to be better, and more remembered, activated the fronto-temporal areas involved in functions such as language , memory, affectivity, etc. This means that when the joke is conceived in these areas and this then goes to the TOJ who creates it definitively, it already makes its author laugh, a bit like saying that the best joke is the one that makes even those who tell it laugh. In fact, some comedians can’t help but laugh during their best performances.


Comic creativity is distinguished from others by its center (the TOJ in fact) but also by the fact that its quality and dependence on experience can be immediately evaluated: some imitations are not funny and others, even repeated many times, are always hilarious. . For the rest, comic creativity follows the same rules as the others (a jazz improvisation, a painting, a theatrical monologue, etc.) for which areas similar to TOJ have been identified, different according to the type of ideation. Obviously, if you play jazz, the acoustic areas are activated, if you draw a picture the visual ones and if you play those of language on a stage.


However, only one phenomenon seems common to all types of creativity: on the one hand the mPFC is activated and on the other hand the dlPFC, acronym for dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, both located under the forehead, is deactivated. In the creative moment, when the classic light bulb is turned on and we shout eureka !, a religious silence is created in our brain and our brain activity is attentive only to this sudden illumination, silencing everything else. When a new melody is born in the pianist’s mind, it is as if, without keeping the area that controls the hands on, they magically start moving by themselves. In reality, to direct them is the mPFC which is activated in the so-called default mode, that is, in the way that we have all tried doing something while we are thinking about something else and are kidnapped by other thoughts. The pianist’s hands run on the keyboard while his mind runs after the melody that resonates within him. A bit like when we cross a street looking at a text message on our mobile phone without the motor brain needing to program the movements to walk.

Free and controlled thinking

It has recently been discovered that, along with other areas such as precuneus, hippocampus, posterior cingular cortex, etc., the mPFC and dlPFC are at the apex of the neuronal circuit called Default, which literally means predefined network. This network is triggered by passive activities and is deactivated by targeted actions. At the base of its functioning there is the balance between its two main centers: the mPFC, involved in functions such as introspection, psychosocial relationships, memories, emotions, imagination and the dlPFC which is instead responsible for planning and inhibition. The first is the quintessence of freedom of thought, the second of self-control, a bit like saying that the mPFC is very Italian and the dlPFC very English. The Default balance of creation is therefore based on the activation of free thinking and the silencing of controlled thinking. If Einstein hadn’t had the comic streak that made him stick his tongue out in the famous 1951 photo, maybe his brain wouldn’t have been free enough to formulate the theory of relativity.

March 17, 2021 (change March 17, 2021 | 19:07)

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