Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Jokes activate same brain region as cocaine

Humour tickles drug centre that gives hedonistic high

The nucleus accumbens is awash with feelgood chemical dopamine Credit: © GettyImages

There's truth in the maxim 'laughter is a drug'. A comic cartoon fired up the same brain centre as a shot of cocaine, researchers are reporting.

A team at Stanford University in California asked lab mates, spouses and friends to select the wittiest newspaper cartoons from a portfolio. They showed the winning array to 16 volunteers while peering inside their heads by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The cartoons activated the same reward circuits in the brain that are tickled by cocaine, money or a pretty face, the neuroscientists found1. One brain region in particular, the nucleus accumbens, lit up seconds after a rib-tickler but remained listless after a lacklustre cartoon.

The nucleus accumbens is awash with the feelgood chemical dopamine. The region's buzz may explain the euphoria that follows a good joke, the team suggests. "Intuitively, it makes sense," agrees Bill Kelley, who studies humour at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Earlier investigations found that humour triggers brain regions that work out a joke's language and meaning, or those that control smiling and laughter. Kelley, for example, has studied people's brains while they watched episodes of television comedies Seinfeld and The Simpsons. "It's surprising it's not consistent," he says.

“Intuitively, it makes sense Bill Kelley , Dartmouth College”

A powerful fMRI machine and a particularly detailed analysis may explain why the new study picked up activity in the reward areas as well, suggests lead researcher Allan Reiss.

Reiss hopes that the finding could help to diagnose the early stages of depression - or show whether antidepressants are taking effect - during which people's appreciation of humour is altered. "That would be a terrific way to use this type of work," he says.


  1. 1

    Mobbs, D., Greicius, M.D., Abdel-Azim, E., Menon, V. & Reiss, A. L. Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers. Neuron, 40, 1041 - 1048, (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Additional information

 Dartmouth College

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Pearson, H. Jokes activate same brain region as cocaine. Nature (2003).

Download citation


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing