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The Power of Humor in Ideation and Creativity

Research shows that humor can help people be more creative in problem solving.

Moses Ma/DepositPhoto
Source: Moses Ma/DepositPhoto

The hallmark of a really effective brainstorming is an abundance of genuine and heartfelt laughter. There’s a reason for this: Laughter can help people solve problems that demand creative solutions, by making it easier to think more broadly and associate ideas/relationships more freely.[1] Recent research shows that people in a lighter mood experience more eureka! moments and greater inspiration.

Karuna Subramaniam, in research she did when she was with Northwestern University, found that boosting the mood of volunteers increased their likelihood of having an aha! moment as measured by their ability to solve a word association puzzle, the standard test for creative problem solving. Those who watched a comedy were measurably better at the task using insight than those who watched a horror film, or worse yet, a lecture about quantum electronics.

Using functional MRI, Subramaniam discovered that creative insight is correlated with increased activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) just prior to solving a problem. This region is involved in regulating attention and in problem solving. And people in a positive mood generally have more ACC activity going into the task, which probably helped prepare the brain to find novel solutions. Participants who watched scary movies, such as The Shining, which was specifically noted in the research as “anxiety-producing,” resulted in less activity in the ACC and demonstrated less creativity in solving the puzzles.

In fact, in another brainstorming study [2], where 84 participants—students, professional designers and improvisational comedians—took a cartoon caption humor test and a nominal product brainstorming test, the improvisational comedians generated 20 percent more ideas than professional product designers did, and the comedians generated ideas that were also rated 25 percent more creative. The study also found that many of the games used in improvisational comedy training could be effectively adapted to product design idea generation, because they strongly promoted associative thinking—and found that it increased idea output on average by 37 percent in a subsequent product brainstorming session.

Also, Rex Jung, an assistant research professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico and a practicing clinical neuropsychologist proposes that creative capacities are not the same as intellectual capacities. The ability to acquire and process facts and observations—to reason—is fundamentally different from the ability to put them together in innovative ways. When we perform intellectual tasks, neural networks appear to function in more directed and linear ways. However, when we attempt to perform more creative tasks, it is as if the neural pathways plot more meandering and circumlocutory paths. Jung calls this alternative brain functioning transient hypofrontality, which suggests that our usual neural process of seeing and processing the world switches off for a while to make space for a different kind of engagement.

What this means for the innovation manager and brainstorm facilitator is that humor, lightened mood, and mental spaciousness are important when it comes to encouraging creativity, ideation, and problem solving. Jung explains, “Creative people usually know what activities precipitate their best ideas. It can be anything from going for a run to meditation.” Also, it validates that all those crazy warm-up exercises that innovation consultants make you do have a scientific basis—and that it is indeed possible to teach creativity.

The Neurophysiology of Laughter

In fact, there’s an entire branch of science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain and the immune system— it’s called gelotology and studies in this area are proliferating. Researchers have found that humor and laughter is a very complex cognitive function.

For example, EEG topographical brain mapping has shown that the entire brain has to work together to appreciate a joke fully and for humor to work. First, the left hemisphere begins to process the words, then the frontal lobe center of emotionality is activated, 120 milliseconds later the right hemisphere begins processing the pattern and a few milliseconds later the occipital lobe shows increased activity. Delta waves are increased as the brain “gets” the joke, and the nucleus accumbens to elicit happiness felt as a reward, and finally, laughter erupts. [3] But essentially, the left hemisphere sets up the joke, and the right hemisphere helps the brain “get” the joke. Damage to the right frontal lobe of the cerebrum can decrease one’s ability to appreciate humor, smile, or laugh in response to a joke.

This is quite different from what happens with your typical emotional responses. Emotional responses appear to be confined to specific areas of the brain, while laughter seems to be produced via a circuit that runs through many regions of the brain. These connections are involved in the control of major activities like friendship, love and affection, and it makes sense that the involuntary action of laughter forms a direct communication link between people, from limbic brain to limbic brain. People who relish each other’s company laugh easily and often; those who distrust or dislike each other laugh little, if at all. Thus laughter promotes bonding and team-building.

Researchers are also finding that there are many other benefits to laughter and humor. For example, it stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning, by activating the limbic system in the brain and connecting the right and left sides. Also, humor releases tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component of creativity.

Evolutionary Roots of Humor

So why did humans develop a sense of humor in the first place? If you look at a typical brainstorming as an ethnographer, you can see the roots of group thinking as a survival mechanism for tribal collectives. If game became sparse, the best hunters and shamans would gather, to discuss strategies for survival. What we see in corporate boardrooms and brainstormings has this as a lineage. Thus, the underlying behaviors can be deconstructed by using an approach based on evolutionary psychology to analyse technical and practices in brainstorming.

Robert Provine, a professor of neurobiology and p sychology at the University of Maryland has made a serious study of laughter, in the same way that an animal behaviorist might study a dog's bark or a bird's song. He believes that laughter, like the bird's song, functions as a kind of social signal. Other studies have confirmed that theory, showing that people are 30 times more likely to laugh in social settings than when they are alone.

Cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte says, “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter there is, the more bonding occurs within the group.” This feedback loop of bonding-laughter-more bonding may be a reason why laughter is contagious. Philosopher John Morreall believes that the first human laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger. And since the relaxation that results from a bout of laughter inhibits the biological fight-or-flight response, laughter may indicate trust in one's companions. Also, studies have also found that dominant individuals, such as the boss or the tribal chief, generally use humor more than their subordinates. In such cases, Morreall explains, controlling the laughter of a group becomes a way of exercising power by controlling the emotional climate of the group.

In fact, in a study by the McClelland Centre for Research and Innovation, it was found that outstanding executives use humor more than twice as often as the so-called average executives (237 percent more, to be exact). Furthermore, when the study examined executives’ compensation, there was a direct correlation between the use of humor and the size of their compensation. The funnier they were, the more they made. This is why Steve Jobs’ keynote speech launching the iPhone clocked in at .6 laughs per minute—not good enough for the Tonight Show, but better than most new comics. For the innovation manager and brainstorm facilitator, humor and laughter are effective tools for strengthening human connection and controlling group behavior.

Understanding the Cognitive Structure of Jokes

If we seek to utilize humor as part of a formal approach to group ideation, it makes sense to better understand the structure of humor. Currently, there are three theories of humor—superiority theory, comic relief theory, and incongruity theory. Let’s examine each of these approaches and theories of humor.

Superiority humor deals with jokes that focus on someone else's mistakes, stupidity, or misfortune, as in the typical jokes about blondes or ethnicities. This could also include self-deprecation, which is often used by stand-up comedians and in Woody Allen movies.

Here’s an innovation-related joke that uses this form of humor.

One night, a Delta twin-engine puddle jumper was flying somewhere above New Jersey. There were five people on board: the pilot, a venture capitalist, the Dalai Lama, and a hippie.

Suddenly, an illegal oxygen generator explodes loudly in the luggage compartment, and the passenger cabin begins to fill with smoke. The cockpit door opens, and the pilot bursts into the compartment. "Gentlemen," he shouts, "I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that we're about to crash. The good news is that there are four parachutes, and I have one of them!" With that, the pilot throws open the door and jumps from the plane.

The venture capitalist immediately goes into action and says, "Gentlemen, I am the world's top venture capitalist, and probably the smartest man in the world. Obviously, I need a parachute." He grabs one, and out he jumps.

The Dalai Lama and the hippie look at one another. Finally, the Dalai Lama speaks, "My friend, I have lived a satisfying life and have known the bliss of True Enlightenment. You still have your life ahead of you, so you should take a parachute, and I’ll go down with the plane."

The hippie smiles and said, "Hey, don't worry, your Holiness. The smartest man in the world just jumped out with my backpack."

Badaboom. What happens here is the reversal of power, that makes it funny.

Comic relief occurs when tension or suspense is broken with the use of humor. It’s a device used by filmmakers in action or dramatic films, where tension is high, and humor is used to release the tension periodically, to cyclically drain the adrenaline glands. If the dramatic tension is kept at a solid 10 for two hours straight, the viewer becomes fatigued. Thus, the art of filmmaking is all about the careful control of dramatic cycles or waves, which are usually marked in acts and plot points. Comic relief is valuable for releasing tension periodically without resolving the core storyline. The textbook example of modern comic relief are C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars, but the technique has been used since the time of Shakespeare.

Incongruity theory suggests that humor arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don't normally go together. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies are already anticipating what's going to happen and how it's going to end. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion and is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, this incongruity between the different parts of the joke as humorous.

Here’s an innovation-related joke that uses this form of humor.

An engineer, a Total Quality black belt, a programmer, and a true innovator were driving down a mountain in an old jeep when the brakes gave out. They screamed down the mountain, gaining speed, and finally managed to grind to a halt, more by luck than anything else, just inches from a thousand foot drop to jagged rocks. They all got out of the car.

The engineer says, "Pop the hood, I can fix this."

The Total Quality black belt says, "No, I think we should first convene a quality circle, do a pareto analysis and find an optimal solution before we use an adhoc approach."

The programmer says, "No, I think we should push it back up the hill and see if it does it again."

And the true innovator says, "Man, I just got an idea for a great amusement park ride!"

So which form of humor is best for ideation? Probably incongruity… because once you see the solution to a thorny problem was hidden in plain sight, you can’t help but laugh. Superiority humor, especially if it is sarcastic or mean-spirited and used by senior management, it will certainly alienate the staff.

The Punchline of Life

Every month, new insights emerge to illuminate what lies behind the elusive human capacities for creativity. With time, this new science will develop into a powerful way of studying creativity, and will lead to new models for humor, creativity, and group ideation. However, neuroscience will not tell us everything we want to know about creativity. We cannot lose touch with the human meaning to all of this. We must remember that humor and creativity is all about making connections and expanding the meaning of our lives.

One more interesting finding from the gelotology is that on average, children laugh 400 times a day, while adults laugh about 15 times.[4] So as we age, we begin to lose our ability to be delighted. Researchers have indicated that the minimum number of laughs needed per day by adults is 30.[5] So maybe the goal isn’t just to increase laughter in brainstormings, but to increase laughter in all of life.

Returning to the research of Rex Jung—that intellectual processing is fundamentally different from creativity, in which the neural pathways follow meandering paths—the good news is that even though our brains slowly lose the capacity to perform intellectual tasks as we age, the reason we lose that capacity—the covering that insulates neurons, called myelin, begins to gradually deteriorate—has a byproduct in that neural pathways begin to meander and wander, possibly in service of creative cognition. So as we get older and wiser, our ability to be creative and laugh about it all increases. And within this lies the punchline of life.

PS, below is one final offering, something to make any innovator laugh a little. If you do, try to feel your neural pathways shifting to enable greater creativity.

You’re welcome.

© Moses Ma
Source: © Moses Ma

This article reprinted by permission © 2014


[1] Goleman, Daniel Jay, PhD. Emotional Intelligence. 84-86. NY: Bantam Books, 1995.

[2] Kudrowitz, Barry. M.I.T. PhD Thesis: Creativity, idea generation, improvisational humor, and product design. Ref:

[3] Dunn, Joseph R., PhD, Ed. New Discoveries in Psychoneuroimmunology. p 6-7.

[4] Palmer, Gary K. Brigham Young University. The Power of Laughter. p 32-35. Ensign, Sept 2007.

[5] Beck, Martha, PhD. The Joy Diet. p 160-162. NY: Crown Publishers, 2003.

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