Humor Boosts Neurological, Cognitive, and Physiological Elements to Learning
The comedian W.C. Fields once said, “I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food.” If you smiled or laughed at that comment, it probably also enhanced the mood of others who observed your reaction. Research on what are called mirror neurons demonstratively shows the contagious effects triggered by expressions of humor.
The neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni discovered that we and some other primates have mirror neurons in our premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex that activate both when we perform certain actions and when we observe someone else performing them (Iacoboni, 2009). Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga observed, “Not only do we unconsciously copy the mannerisms of others, but we like and have smoother interactions with them when they copy our mannerisms. Reflexively, a connection is formed, and we tend to ‘like’ people who are similar to us” (Gazzaniga, 2011). Humor increases the essential educational elements of rapport, enhanced trust, and collaboration within a classroom. This is especially applicable if students work in groups. Beginning your class with humor and sprinkling humor throughout the day thus creates a trusting collegial atmosphere.
The Use of Classroom Humor
Humor is holistic. Appropriately used, it can serve as a tremendous teaching tool. Its purposeful cultivation can nourish both effective teaching and learning. Think of it as a skill that can be practiced and enhanced. As early as 1988, researchers at Tel Aviv University discovered that when teachers were trained to use humor in their classroom — even as few as three times per lesson — learning increased by almost 15 percent, and continued throughout the entire semester (Ziv, 1988).
My door opens, students arrive, and they prepare for class. They look up at the screen to see a one-minute humorous video segment, a recent cartoon, or a quote like the one that started this article. They laugh. Even the act of dimming the lights for the daily humor-starter typically prompts a smile. Now they are ready to learn. Research shows how feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are all released when their smiles flash across their faces (Lane, et al., 2000).
Dopamine, the motivator neurotransmitter most closely linked with humor, is also linked to motivated learning and attention. The serotonin release brought on by their smiles lifts their moods (Karren, et al., 2010). Smiles also release neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress. This not only relaxes their bodies, but it can lower their heart rate and blood pressure (Seaward, 2013). Humor is an educational elixir we can all include in our classrooms. The most effective teachers already do so.
I do most of my work in groups, but even lecture-based teachers can improve retention and learning with humor. More than 500 students at San Diego State were enrolled in what they thought was a normal introductory psychology course on Freudian personality theory, but different students attended different kinds of lectures (Kaplan and Pascoe, 1977). One lecture incorporated humor relating to the course content. A second lecture incorporated humor that wasn’t related to the material but still kept students entertained. And a third lecture used no humor at all, only a serious treatment of the subject material. When the researchers tested students’ retention six weeks after the lectures, they found that those who attended the two sets of lectures that used humor related to course content scored significantly higher than the other students.
Humor doesn’t just improve learning and engagement, it may even make us smarter. Consider the results of the following research on humor and problem solving (Isen, et al., 1987). One hundred and sixteen students at the University of Maryland were divided into four groups and then told to complete a problem-solving task. Prior to the task, each group received a different intervention. The first group watched a compilation of funny bloopers. The second group watched a five-minute documentary on Nazi concentration camps. The third group watched a math film. The fourth group had a choice of relaxing, snacking, or light exercise.
Each of the above manipulations was intended to affect mood but only one was meant to elicit laughter. The following task, called the Duncker candle insight task, followed the intervention. Each subject received a box of tacks, a candle, and a book of matches. They were then asked to attach the candle to the wall so that it burns without dripping wax on the floor. (Pause here if you want to think of the correct response.)
The solution: Attach the empty box to the wall using one of the tacks and then use wax or another tack to secure the candle atop the box. What makes this task challenging for many people is functional fixedness — the inability to view the box as serving any purpose other than holding the tacks. The candle doesn’t have to be directly attached to the wall. And boxes can do more than just hold small objects.
Only 32 of the 116 subjects suggested a correct solution. The only one of the four groups with a success rate better than 30% was the group who had been shown the funny bloopers; this group had a 58% success rate.
Humor quickly gets to the essence of understanding and diffusing complex issues (Sylwester, 2013). It engages parts of the brain needed for critical thinking. Test your insight with this short activity. Decipher what word goes together with this three-word group: Cottage, Swiss, Cake. In the remote semantic association test, you get 15 seconds to figure out that “Cheese” is the answer. The test gets progressively more difficult. Time yourself to see if you can do the following grouping in 15 seconds: Tooth, Potato, Heart. If you answered correctly, you are uncommon, as less than one in five gives a correct response (I’ll provide the correct answer below). Subjects at Northwestern University who were in a good mood at the time solved more of a set of similar problems successfully, and they also engaged a specific part of the brain called the anterior cingulate (Karuna, et al., 2008).
A positive mood improves focus by helping the anterior cingulate hold back unwanted responses such as “ache” with tooth, “eye” with potato, and “attack” with heart. You arrive at the correct answer “sweet” sooner when you’re in a good mood (sweet tooth, sweet potato, and sweetheart). Watson, Matthews, and Allman (2007) suggest that both the dopamine centers and the anterior cingulate are active in humor. The funnier the jokes, the more engaged the anterior cingulate.
Insight isn’t the only complex cognitive skill that benefits from humor. One study showed that reading funny jokes also improves student scores on creativity tests, reflecting increased mental fluency, flexibility, and originality (Ziv, 1976). Finish your class with a laugh or smile. The peak-end rule suggests that we tend to judge our experiences by how we felt during the peaks and ends. Teachers who finish their lessons with a cartoon, joke, or funny clip prepare students for emotional engagement in the next class. Our minds need emotional engagement just like they need exercise. Without that engagement, we become passive to our environment. Learning is a game, so let’s play!
Gazzaniga, M. (2011). Who’s in charge: Free will and the science of the brain. New York: Harper Collins.
Iacoboni, M. (2009). Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York: Picador.
Isen, A., Daubman, K., & Nowicki, G. (1987). Positive affect facilitates problem-solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Kaplan, R., & Pascoe, G. (1977). Humorous lectures and humorous examples: Some effects upon comprehension and retention. Journal of Educational Psychology.
Karren, K., Smith, L., Gordon, K., & Frandsen, K. (2010). Mind/body health: The effect of attitudes, emotions, and relationships. New York: Benjamin Cummings.
Karuna, S., Kounios, J., Parrish, T., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008). A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Lane, R., Nadel, A., & Kaszniak, A., eds. (2000). Neural correlates of conscious emotional experience. In Cognitive neuroscience of emotion. New York: Oxford.
Seaward, B. (2013). Managing stress: strategies for health and wellbeing. 8th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.
Sylwester, R. (2013). Understanding and mastering complexity: The role of caricature. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 2/22/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-122.html.
Watson, K., Matthews, B., & Allman, J. (2007). Brain activation during sight gags and language-dependent humor. Cerebral Cortex.
Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication. Journal of Experimental Education.
Ziv, A. (1976). Facilitating effects of humor on creativity. Journal of Educational Psychology.