Why females laugh longer at punchlines


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May 24, 2005
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Women find the punchlines of jokes more satisfying than men do, according to a study by scientists. They also use more of their brains to appreciate humour in the first place.

Allan Reiss, of the centre for interdisciplinary brain sciences research at Stanford University, California, said his new research might lead to a better understanding of depression and diseases such as cataplexy, where there is an abrupt loss of motor control associated with intense emotions such as humour.

Several parts of the brain are involved in appreciating humour. These include the prefrontal cortex, involved in language processing, and the mesolimbic reward centre, responsible for satisfactory feelings from things such as earning money or taking cocaine.

The results are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In his experiment, Dr Reiss asked 10 men and 10 women to rate how funny a number of cartoons were. A brain-scanning machine analysed their reactions. Overall, men and women shared many responses.

But the researchers also found that women tended to use certain parts of their brain more than men. These included the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting a greater emphasis on language processing, and a part of the mesolimbic reward centre called the nucleus accumbens.

Dr Reiss said women seemed to analyse the cartoons more before rating them funny, because they were not necessarily expecting them to be as rewarding as men.

"Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punchline of the cartoon," said Dr Reiss. "So when they got to the joke's punchline, they were more pleased about it." The funnier the cartoon, the more women's reward centres were activated.
This was not the case for men, who seemed to expect the cartoons to be funny from the start. Dr Reiss said this had implications for the treatment of depression in women - if their reward centres are more sensitive to emotional stimuli, it may help explain why depression strikes twice as many women as men.

Alok Jha, science correspondent
Tuesday November 8, 2005

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