Why Men and Women Laugh Out Loud

It was somewhere in the middle of one of the Jackass movies—when a Jackassinine was climbing hand over hand on a rope strung across an alligator pit, a dead chicken hanging off his backside as hungry gators lunged—that I thought, It doesn’t get any funnier than this. Then I glanced over at my wife, who had an expression on her face that was more horrified than amused. She asked, “Why are you laughing?”

It was an excellent question, and one I couldn’t really answer. I knew her friends preferred the lovelorn characters in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies or the gentle whimsy of radio humorist Garrison Keillor. But given a choice between watching an Ephron film with its sharp comic patter, or waiting to see what happens when some dude straps bottle rockets to his roller skates, I’ll watch the dude. And the truth is the only way I would listen to A Prairie Home Companion was if someone duct-taped me to a chair.

male and Female Sense of HUmor

I find the brilliant Mr. Keillor too subtle and his wordplay way too clever. Certainly nothing in Keillor’s armamentarium of bons mots equals Curly’s enchantingly lyrical “nyuk nyuk nyuk.”

All of this leads to one of the great questions of the ages. Is my wife’s consistent good taste in humor representative of women everywhere? Is my proclivity for dim-witted entertainment typical? Or, to paraphrase Freud, what do women and men want to laugh at?

The glimmerings of an answer appeared back in the late ’90s, far from the brick walls and open mikes of comedy clubs. According to science journalist Kathleen Stein, it was happening inside the hallowed halls of London’s Institute of Neurology. In her recent book The Genius Engine, Stein describes how researchers there used MRIs to photograph the brain as it processed a joke.

Neuroscientists Vinod Goel, PhD, and Raymond J. Dolan, MD, bombarded their captive audience with corny jokes (Q: Why don’t sharks bite lawyers? A: Professional courtesy), tricky semantics (Q: What do you give the man who has everything? A: Antibiotics) and slightly edgier stuff like this one from Chris Rock: “The only thing I know about Africa is that it’s far, far away. About a 35-hour flight. The boat ride’s so long, there are still slaves on their way here.”

The scientists watched the subjects’ brain cells spark into activity and pinpointed the neurological equivalent of the funny bone. It resides in a region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a neighborhood of convoluted gray matter tucked in the front of the brain where some of the higher functions of language and thought reside.

Not only were neuronal responses positively ablaze in the PFC, but they also varied according to the funniness of the joke. “When a participant laughed out loud,” says Stein, “a specific region lit up.” It was a subsection with the tongue-twisting name of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. “The brain’s comedy central,” she says.