The neural basis of humour comprehension and humour appreciation: The roles of the temporoparietal junction and superior frontal gyrus

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Abstract

Psychological well-being and social acumen benefit from the recognition of humourous intent and its enjoyment. The enjoyment of humour requires recognition, but humour recognition is not necessarily accompanied by humour enjoyment. Humour recognition is crucial during social interactions, while the associated enjoyment is less critical. Few neuroimaging studies have explicitly differentiated between the neural foundations of humour comprehension and humour appreciation. Among such studies, design limitations have obscured the specification of neural correlates to humour comprehension or appreciation. We implemented a trichotomous response option to address these design limitations. Twenty-four participants rated 120 comics (90 unaltered with humourous intent and 30 caption-altered without humourous intent) as either funny jokes (FJ), not funny jokes but intended to be funny (NFJ), or not intended to be funny or non-jokes (NJ). We defined humour comprehension by NFJ minus NJ and humour appreciation by FJ minus NFJ. We measured localized blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) neural responses with a 3T MRI scanner. We tested for BOLD responses in humour comprehension brain regions of interest (ROIs), humour appreciation ROIs, and across the whole-brain. We found significant NFJ–NJ BOLD responses in our humour comprehension ROIs and significant FJ–NFJ BOLD responses in select humour appreciation ROIs. One key finding is that comprehension accuracy levels correlated with humour-comprehension responses in the left temporo-parietal junction (TPJ). This finding represents a novel and precise neural linkage to humour comprehension. A second key finding is that the superior frontal gyrus (SFG) was uniquely associated with humour-appreciation. The SFG response suggests that complex cognitive processing underlies humour appreciation and that current models of humour appreciation be revised. Finally, our research design provides an operational distinction between humour comprehension and appreciation and a sensitive measure of individual differences in humour comprehension accuracy.

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