What Are You Laughing At?


Why do so many advertisements use humor to convey a message? Here’s a better question: What the heck IS humor? Why do we laugh at all? For what possible purpose did our brains develop a sense of “funny” and “not funny”?

Surprisingly, very little has been written about the topic throughout history. But there are five prevailing theories worth exploring.

The first is the superiority theory. From ancient Greece until fairly recent times, laughter was thought of as scornful and malicious. By laughing at a person, we are taking delight in the evil act of expressing superiority over others.

Fast forward to the early 20th century, when philosophers like Sigmund Freud offered a new perspective: the relief theory. Laughter does for the nervous system what a pressure-relief valve does for a steam boiler; it releases pent-up energy and mental stress. Toot, toot!

But what about when something just strikes you as funny, regardless of your emotional state? Perhaps the incongruity theory can explain. Laughter happens when we perceive something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. We expect cats to chase mice. What happens when the reverse occurs?

Sometimes we laugh for little or no reason at all. And we definitely laugh more often when surrounded by other people — up to 30 times more, according to one study. Play theory postulates that laughter evolved as a social symbol to communicate that all is well; everyone is safe and now you can relax.

If that’s the case, then why are some people funnier than others? Put on your adult thinking caps, because it’s time for sex theory, which poses that humor evolved as a signal of intelligence to reproductive mates. Suitors who can make us laugh may be smarter, more creative, and better at problem-solving (survival). But is it true?

Five theories of humor, all of which beg the same question: “Who cares?!” The answer, of course, is YOU. Or more specifically, your brain does. Humor lights up the brain like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Here’s how:
At Northlich, humor is one strategy based on a specific marketing objective. Sometimes humor is the way to go. Often times it is not. (Don't worry, we'll help you sort it out.)

First, new information enters your prefrontal cortex, which processes sensory information (seeing/hearing/touching) to help guide your decisions. This is your conscious awareness of comedy.

Next, if you find this information “funny,” your prefrontal cortex sends signals to your brain’s reward center for a pleasing shot of dopamine (hey, we got the joke!) and the beginning of a cranium-wide reaction.

Neuro-signals blaze trails through the amygdala (the seat of emotions) and the hypothalamus (which encodes memories) en route to the “old brain,” where your brain stem triggers a physiological alarm. Endorphins are released; your heart rate and blood pressure drop; your facial muscles constrict; your vocal chords activate — and you laugh.

All this happens in less than a second. And that’s just one joke. Imagine what happens when we watch an entire comedic video or feature film (highly recommended). This is your brain on humor.

Which brings us back to the initial question: Why DO advertisers try so hard to tickle our funny bones? Quite simply, it’s not about bones at all. It’s about that weird, squishy gray matter located between our ears — and the powerful, pleasant electro-chemical storm humor produces, no matter which theory explains it.