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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/A Laughing Matter

Air Date: Week of

A new study from Stanford University shows that women get more pleasure out of jokes than men.


TORGRIMSON: So, a guy walks into a bar and…well, you know the rest. Gets yah every time, right? Well, that depends on whether you’re a woman or a man. Women seem to get more out of a joke than men do, according to a recent study by Stanford University School of Medicine.

[LAUGHTER: Unknown “The Okey Laughing Record” from ‘The Best of the Roaring Twenties’ (Disky Communications – 1993)]

Scientists showed black and white cartoons to men and women, who rated the cartoons on a one to 10 “funniness scale.” Researchers monitored both sexes’ brain function and when the participants were processing the joke. They found men and women have the same humor response system; when they think something is funny, both activate the part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and language processing, and activate these parts to similar degrees.

But women experienced greater activity in parts of the brain already associated with humor appreciation, the prefrontal cortex and mesolimbic reward center. When women hit the punch line of the cartoon, their reward center lit up. The funnier the cartoon, the more the reward center was activated in women. Stimulation of this mesolimbic reward center means something is pleasant and unexpected; other triggers include a windfall profit on an investment or a cocaine high.

Scientists think the punch line was more of a surprise because women had lower expectations. They did not expect the cartoons to be as rewarding as the men did. Scientists say the study could further research of depression and cataplexy, a condition where strong emotions, like humor, advance sudden motor control loss. If future studies find that women’s reward centers have greater sensitivity to emotional stimuli, we may eventually better understand why depression affects twice as many women than men.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Emily Torgrimson.




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