We all have that one friend – the one who has such a quick wit, the one with a snappy hilarious comeback, the one who can have a room laughing with their one-liners and jokes. They are fun to be around and would definitely be thought of as an extrovert. But highly intelligent? Most of us haven’t thought about that. Researchers have, however. And the results of their research might surprise you.
Early Research Says Yes
Before researchers ever began to look at any relationship between humor and intelligence, many educational psychologists and sociologists had already identified what came to be known as emotional and social intelligence. They continue to believe that people with a good sense of humor are extroverted and able to function in society more successfully.
In the 1970’s, William Hauck and John Thomas, two researchers at Bucknell University, tested 80 elementary children to determine any correlation between intelligence and humor and creativity. Their results showed a .89 correlation between intelligence and creativity and a .91 correlation between intelligence and humor. For readers who have never had a statistics course, there is a very high correlation.
Most can easily accept the correlation between humor and creativity, but may find the one between humor and intelligence a bit harder to digest. Fortunately, more research followed this early study.
Research in the 90’s is Supportive
During the 90’s, there was a growth in research of the two hemispheres of the brain. This research determined that the left hemisphere was where the verbal, logical, linear thinking occurred, and the right hemisphere is more responsible for visual, artistic, creative, and problem-solving abilities.
Taking this information, biologist Michael Johnson conducted and then published his study on the correlation between perceptual and motor skills and the ability to understand and produce humor. Participants in this study were asked to rate the “funniness” of 32 jokes and then solve 14 visual manipulation problems. His results showed a correlation between those who did well on the problems and were able to understand the humor in the jokes.
Another researcher, Daniel Holt, studied the correlation between humor and giftedness in school-aged children. He concluded that gifted students have several common characteristics, one of those being an “an advanced sense of humor.”
Still more research found that, among 185 college-aged students, those with higher intelligence were able to rate humor better and to produce humor, by way of creating captions to cartoons. Another correlation was found between humor and extraversion.
Into the 2000’s – More Confirmation
Research has continued into this century, and all of it seems to support all of the earlier research.
In 2010, University of New Mexico researchers conducted studies with 400 students, equally divided by gender. They were tested for verbal intelligence, abstract reasoning and their ability to produce humor, again by writing captions to three cartoons. Again, high scores on intelligence tests correlated with abilities to recognize and produce humor.
Other studies with college students also support the findings of the University of Mexico study.
Neuroscience Enters the Picture
In 2009, Alastair Clarke published a book, the Pattern Recognition Theory of Humour. Without going into all of the terminology and scientific context, in general, Clarke said that we come to understand our world and our language by establishing and understanding patterns. Patterns in language allow us to understand and appreciate humor in more sophisticated ways as we develop. As well, the amount of understanding differs with individuals, thus some are more adept at both comprehending humor and producing it. So, it’s a brain thing, according to Clarke.
Neuroscientists have been looking into the areas of the brain that are activated by humor. Researchers at Stanford University, led by Dr. Allan Reiss, neuroscientist and child psychiatrist, are studying the brains of children through MRI’s, as they watch humorous videos. And compared to adults, the same region of the brain, the mesolimbic region, is activated. This region is active in kids as young as age 6.
Humor also activated another portion of the brain (temporal-occipital-parietal junction), which is that part of the brain that processes the act of surprise or mis-matches (incongruity). This makes sense because a lot of humor occurs when you are expecting a certain to happen or be said, and something totally different happens or is said, and it is then funny.
Humor and Human Hormones
Reiss also speculates that highly developed regions of the brain that process and understand humor will also correlate with the ability to be more resilient in handling stressful and difficult situations, often by the ability to see some humor in them. Even more interesting, however, is the chemicals that are released when humor is understood and appreciated.
All of us are by now familiar with the “feel-good” hormones that are released during times of happiness, physical exercise, human touch, etc. They are responsible for the good feelings that we experience. But newer research is finding other hormonal results associated with humor.
Cortisol is better known as the stress hormone. This chemical damages brain neurons that are responsible for learning and memory, especially in older people. Research at Loma Linda University is now attempting to learn whether cortisol production is reduced by humor and whether humor can also reduce the damage to neurons that cortisol causes.
The study was simple enough. A group of senior citizens was shown a funny video for 20 minutes and then given a memory. The control group did not watch the video but took the same memory test. Sure enough – those who watched the video scored higher.
Cortisol concentrations were also recorded before and after the video. There was a definite decrease in cortisol concentrations in the group that watched the video. The decreases in cortisol were especially high in elderly with diabetes, which has now given researchers another area for study. It appears that laughter and humor will reduce stress.
Dr. G.S. Bain and Dr. L.S. Berk, heads of this study have expressed excitement about the study results, stating that there are big implications for wellness and better quality of life for the elderly.
It seems, then, that laughter is not just “good medicine,” but also good for the memory and the reduction of stress.
In 1983, Dr. Howard Gardner, professor at Harvard University developed a theory of multiple intelligences. To him, humans had 8 different intelligences in different capacities. Some of these intelligences did involve humor as a characteristic – language, reasoning, and spatial specifically. These are the intelligences that we normally test through traditional IQ testing, so this explains why, finally, humor and intelligence are related.
No matter how scientists continue to study the relationships between humor and intelligence, we all know one thing. We appreciate that witty, funny person who brings us laughter.