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Making kids laugh for science: Study shows how humor activates children's brains

Back in my grad-student days, stressed out by studying for midterms, I went with two friends to see a silly movie – Austin Powers in Goldmember.

The three of us, all in our early 20s, soon realized we were the oldest people in the theater by a good 10 years or so. It quickly became clear that the 12-year-olds around us had different senses of humor than we did: They adored the movie's sight gags but missed some of the more sophisticated wordplay that had us in stitches.

The development of kids' sense of humor is the subject of a new study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience by a research team at Stanford and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. The team performed the first-ever study using brain scans to see which neural networks are used when children watch humorous videos. Austin Powers was not involved in this study; they stuck with material from "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Although humor might at first seem trivial, it's not all slapstick and rib-ticklers, explains the study's senior author in a press release I wrote about the new research:

“Humor is a very important component of emotional health, maintaining relationships, developing cognitive function and perhaps even medical health,” said Allan Reiss, MD, who directs the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford. […] “In particular, we think a balanced and consistent sense of humor may help children negotiate the difficult period of pre-adolescence and adolescence,” he said.

The brain networks activated in kids watching funny material are similar to those in adults, but kids' brain networks are less sophisticated, the researchers found. The research, which was conducted in healthy 6- to 12-year-olds, lays the foundation for future studies to examine how positive states, such as humor, play into children's overall level of resilience and their vulnerability to emotional problems like depression:

“Negative emotional states such as depression or anxiety are compelling to study, but you can’t completely understand why a child has emotional stability or instability until you look at both sides of the coin,” [Reiss] said.

Photo by wolleydog

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