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The functional anatomy of humor: segregating cognitive and affective components

Abstract

Humor, a unique human characteristic, is critical in thought, communication and social interaction. Successful jokes involve a cognitive juxtaposition of mental sets, followed by an affective feeling of amusement; we isolated these two components of humor by using event-related fMRI on subjects who listened to auditorily presented semantic and phonological jokes (puns) and indicated whether or not they found the items amusing. Our findings suggest that whereas there are modality-specific pathways for processing the juxtaposition of mental sets necessary for the appreciation of jokes, a common component of humor is expressed in activity in medial ventral prefrontal cortex, a region involved in reward processing.

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Figure 1: Subjects were presented with semantic and phonological jokes while undergoing fMRI scans.
Figure 2: An anatomical dissociation occurred in the cognitive processing of semantic and phonological jokes, whereas a common region underlay affective processing.

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Acknowledgements

V.G. is supported by a McDonnell-Pew Program in Cognitive Neuroscience Award, and NSERC and SSHRC grants. R.J.D. is supported by the Wellcome Trust. The authors acknowledge advice from B. Strange and R. Henson.

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Correspondence to Vinod Goel or Raymond J. Dolan.

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Goel, V., Dolan, R. The functional anatomy of humor: segregating cognitive and affective components. Nat Neurosci 4, 237–238 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/85076

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