Posted by: bluesyemre | June 17, 2013

Laughter and the Brain by Richard Restak


In my neuropsychiatric practice, I often use cartoons and jokes to measure a patient’s neurologic and psychiatric well-being. I start off with a standard illustration called “The Cookie Theft.” It depicts a boy, precariously balanced on a stool, pilfering cookies from a kitchen cabinet as his sister eggs him on, while their absentminded mother stands drying a plate, oblivious to the water overflowing from the sink onto the floor.  Though not really a cartoon—in that nothing terribly funny is taking place—it allows me to begin assessing various things: abstraction ability, empathy, powers of observation and description, as well as sense of humor. I am especially curious to see how patients process the image, whether they perceive only a portion of it or take it in as a whole. Some people notice only the boy, others only the mother.

Next, I show a series of cartoons, starting with examples from a newspaper comics page and working up to more sophisticated drawings from The New Yorker. I then ask for an explanation of what’s going on in each of them. Over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t fake an understanding of a cartoon; you either get it or you don’t.

Finally, I tell a few jokes set out in increasing levels of subtlety and complexity. Patients don’t have to find the jokes funny (humor is too heterogeneous for that), but they should be able to explain why other people might find them funny. Why am I interested in my patients’ ability to appreciate humor? Because humor impairment may point to operational problems at various levels of brain functioning.

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