We know when something is funny, but can we attribute that recognition of humor to a specific part of our brain? “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it,” said neurologist and Dana Alliance member Richard Restak, M.D., quoting writer E.B. White at Sunday night’s Rubin Museum event, which also featured notable New Yorker cartoonists. More to the point, there is no humor center of the brain, said Restak.
That doesn’t mean we know nothing of how the brain processes humor, though. When looking at a funny cartoon, Restak said, we engage our cerebral cortex for linguistic and visual congruity, and the subcortical areas provide pleasure and emotional aspects of appreciation. “Cartoons are great brain enhancers,” said Restak, because they make heavy demands on the organ.
Researchers are also making some progress in identifying areas of the brain activated by humor. While at Stanford, Dean Mobbs, Ph.D., now a professor in the psychology department at Columbia University, identified brain activation in the mesolimbic rewards system of people who viewed funny versus unamusing cartoons–the former resulting in mirth. A paper he co-authored presents the imaging evidence they found.
With this information in mind, New Yorker cartoonists Paul Noth, David Sipress, and Zach Kanin set out to enhance our brains and activate our mesolimbic rewards systems with examples of their work, a discussion about inspiration and work process, and even some on-the-spot cartoon creations.
One of the cartoons shown by Noth that drew appreciative laughter from the sold-out audience of 155 was a revisit with 80s book icon Waldo, of Where’s Waldo fame. The caption read, “Nobody ever asks, ‘How’s Waldo?’” and featured a rather drunk and forlorn Waldo sitting at a bar. As a child who owned two Where’s Waldo books, I have to admit, I never once gave any consideration to Waldo beyond finding him in the crowd.
To come up with that one good idea, the artists said, they often must filter through several bad ones. And they go through a lot of ideas. Each week, they submit ten to fifteen cartoons to The New Yorker: “A lot of ideas and a lot of rejection,” said Sipress. To crank out ideas, Sipress will often create a list of words and then give each one about ten minutes of brainstorming before either moving on or committing to a creation.
Knowing that made the on-the-spot cartoon challenge posed to the cartoonists even more suspenseful. Audience members chose three words from three separate columns that the artists had to incorporate into a cartoon–and the results were impressive. Given “monk,” “torture chamber,” and “Florida,” Kanin drew upon his personal experience that “New Yorkers love it when you crap on Florida,” and came up with a drawing of a man being tortured by a Catholic monk on a beach, with the caption, “We were going to torture you for your heresy, but heck, you’re already in Florida.” He knew his audience, because his cartoon was met with loud applause and laughter.
Brainwave runs through April and there are many opportunities to catch other great discussions and films, including The Memory Palace next week. The Rubin Museum is a Brain Awareness Week partner, and The New Yorker Cartoonists event was partially funded by the Dana Foundation.
To learn more about Brain Awareness Week (March 11-17) and to find events in your area, visit www.dana.org/brainweek. In New York City, you can find public brain-y events for all ages on the official braiNY website. On Twitter, search #brainweek and #BebraiNY.
--Ann L. Whitman