Black Joy

By day, Ori Amir is a mild-mannered 30-something college professor. He teaches undergraduate psychology and neuroscience classes, conducts research into how the brain functions, and holds regular office hours on the leafy campus of Pomona College in Southern California.

But his students aren’t fooled. They’ve seen the YouTube videos, the ones that document his not-so-secret other life. In one of them, Amir is gripping a microphone and standing center stage at the 1,400-seat Alex Theater in Glendale, California, wearing a striped rugby shirt, faded blue jeans, battered construction boots — and a ridiculously shaggy white fur coat. It’s the second night of the Glendale Laughs Comedy Festival, and Amir is grinning broadly at the audience through his ample beard, looking like a crazed six-foot-two redheaded Fozzie Bear.

“As you can tell by my accent, I’m a neuroscientist,” says Amir, who grew up in Israel. “They tell the professors at the university where I work to dress ‘business casual.’ This is pretty much the best I can do. My wardrobe ranges from very casual to inappropriate.” Tonight, he’s wearing the full spectrum.

Amir likes to tell his audiences — and occasionally his students — that his dream is to become a “professional comedian and an amateur neurosurgeon.” (“That way I could cut up brains for fun!”) In fact, he has already managed to combine these seemingly unrelated passions.

Amir is one of the leading researchers studying the way the brain creates and understands humor. Unless you happen to be a neuroscientist who moonlights as a stand-up, that specialty might seem trivial compared with other fields of cognition. But the question of why we find things funny has fascinated philosophers for centuries.

Humor feeds the brain

Amir and his mentor, University of Southern California professor of neuroscienceand psychology Irving Biederman, suspected that humor might feed the brain in much the same way that complex information does. People who study humor generally agree that most jokes are built around an incongruity — an inappropriate, absurd, surprising, or unusual combination of two fundamentally different ideas or elements. (To wit: a six-foot-two neuroscientist in a fluffy fur coat and scruffy construction boots.) When we first see or hear this mash-up, we’re confused. That’s the setup. The punch line is the resolution of that confusion. (Oh, this is his idea of business casual! Wocka-wocka.)

So in that sense, appreciating humor is not unlike solving a puzzle, and it yields a similar kind of satisfaction. Instead of an aha moment, you get a haha moment. In fact, Biederman and Amir theorized that because humor requires the brain to process lots of distinct types of information (Isn’t it too hot in Southern California to dress in so many layers? What is considered appropriate business attire? Is it ever OK to wear fur?), funny revelations would activate different and more disparate parts of the brain than unfunny ones. This would excite the neurons even more, which would lead to the release of more neurotransmitters and activation of the reward centers of the brain.

Humor eases stress

Humor helps our cognition in less obvious ways too. Laughter is a natural stress reliever, and our brains work better when they aren’t slowed down by a fog of worry. In 2014, researchers in California demonstrated that elderly subjects who watched a funny video experienced significant improvements in their ability to learn and retain new information, possibly because the feelings of mirth reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that has been shown to hinder recall.

A good joke can function as a release valve for the whole body. “Humor can help reframe stressors, challenges, or difficulties that seem insurmountable to a person,” says Tom Ford, a social psychologist at Western Carolina University and a coauthor of The Psychology of Humor. “If one is able to make light of a stressor or challenge, then it doesn’t seem so big. It seems more manageable.”

Humor makes you more attractive

A University of New Mexico study of 400 college students found that those whoscored highest on intelligence tests also scored high on humor ability—and they reported having more sex. This confirmed a wide body of literature that suggests that “humor is not just a reliable intelligence indicator ... but may be one of the most important traits for seeking human mates.” Being funny is not only a powerful sign of smarts; it also makes potential mates feel good. And by ensuring that only the cleverest, fittest, and most creative people procreate, it helps safeguard the survival of the human race.

“Humor has several unique powers,” says Amir. “It forces people to consider different perspectives. It brings people together; if they are laughing together at something, they must agree with each other on some level. It reduces the pain associated with life’s difficulties. It exercises your brain. And it makes you happy.”

If a healthy sense of humor can make you smarter, sexier, and happier, then one thing is clear: Finding time in your day for a good joke or two is no laughing matter.

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