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The Power of Humor in Ideation and Creativity

This is a really interesting article written by Moses Ma.

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.

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, 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.

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