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Here’s What Happens in Your Brain When You Hear a Pun

Stashed in: Brain, Awesome, Puns!, Neuroscience, Laugh!

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Cooperation between both sides of the brain.

The interaction between the right and left hemispheres “enables us to ‘get’ the joke because puns, as a form of word play, complete humor’s basic formula: expectation plus incongruity equals laughter,” Jacobsen wrote. (The concept she’s describing is known as the benign violation theory of humor, the idea that to be funny, a joke has to subvert our expectations of the norm in a way that isn’t harmful or malevolent. A slapstick bit about someone falling down the stairs, for example, wouldn’t be funny if the person got seriously hurt in the process.) “In puns—where words have multiple, ambiguous meanings—the sentence context primes us to interpret a word in a specific way, an operation that occurs in the left hemisphere,” she continued. “Humor emerges when the right hemisphere subsequently clues us in to the word’s other, unanticipated meaning, triggering what Buchanan calls a ‘surprise reinterpretation.’”

For a pun to land, in other words, both sides of your brain have to engage in a little teamwork. And speaking of teamwork, did you hear the one about the baseball team’s new batter? He was a real hit.

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