.I Started a Joke

well laughUCSC humor study literally pulls legs and yanks chains to measure brain’s responses

The physical act of pulling someone’s leg can make you a funnier person. At least for a short period of time following the act, says Patrawat Samermit, a Ph.D student of cognitive psychology at UCSC. The same is true for yanking someone’s chain.

Samermit, who has ambitions to be the next Margaret Cho, is not pulling our leg (although she’d clearly like to). Her recent humor cognition study used mannequins to find out how enacting embodied metaphors of humor may affect humor production. After the yanking and pulling, test subjects were given New Yorker cartoons and asked to write as many funny captions as they could think of.

“Students who were primed to yank the chain and pull the leg actually had statistically significant higher funniness ratings than the control group, and they are trending toward significantly higher creativity ratings as well,” says Samermit.

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The study, now in its final stages, is modelled after a 2011 study published in Psychological Science which tested people on creativity after enacting several different embodied metaphors—including sitting outside of a box versus sitting inside a box (with—yes this is maddening— positive outside-the-box results).

Samermit is well aware of how crazy all of this probably sounds. But a term paper’s worth of complex humor theories (which we won’t get into here) makes it sound pretty legit. And with a history in improv comedy, she’s no stranger to all sorts of bizarre wit-increasing games and association exercises—although she’s determined to make some breakthroughs in the area. So why should you care about
being funnier? Well, let’s start with the obvious reason: it may make you more attractive to others—not that you need to be any hotter than you already are. “Being humorous really requires you to be able to make novel associations, but the act of being humorous causes people
to like you, because it’s creating a higher dopamine response in the basal ganglia—it’s rewarding to be around you,” says Samermit.
But lighting up the reward center of the brain is only one of laughter’s many bodily blessings which remain on-call from the age of three months until death. As it turns out, creating more laughter around you (and within you) is sort of like handing out free medicine to everyone you meet.

“Studies show that people who laugh more last longer,” says Samermit. And by “studies,” she doesn’t mean some undergrads in a room tugging on mannequin legs (no offense). Several clinical studies on laughter and longevity support her claim, including a two-year 2006 study in Norway which found that cancer patients who maintained a sense of humor increased their odds of survival by 31 percent.

“[People who laugh a lot] have lower blood pressure, which makes sense, lower anxiety, and their health doesn’t decline quite as quickly,” says Samermit.

Perhaps the most profound benefit of a good old LOL is that it lowers levels of cortisol and epinephrine—the stress and “fight or flight” hormones.

But humor and laughter are not one and the same, warns Samermit—laughter is a trait of humor, but it’s also a major social signal dating back to early man.

“Chimps and gorillas have this funny form of laughter, a breathy sound,” says Samermit, making the sound, much to the benefit of the pedestrians walking by. “Pretend we’re chimps in Africa, and there’s something rustling in really tall grass. It may be a snake, it may be a panther, but out pops a baby chimp, one of our children. And one of us lets out this laughter signal, and that’s a signifier that everything is OK.”


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