New research explains the neuroscience of wordplay.
Why do spiders make great baseball players?
Because they know how to catch flies.
Sorry, sorry, I know that was bad. And that puns, in general, are among the most despised forms of humor. But pun-haters, bear with me — there’s a reason I made you suffer through the last couple sentences: In the split second between when you read the pun and when you rolled your eyes, something pretty cool was happening in your brain. As writer Roni Jacobson explained in a recent Scientific American column, new research published earlier this year in the journal Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, sheds some light on how our minds process the complexities of wordplay.
For the study, led by University of Windsor psychologist Lori Buchanan, a team of researchers presented participants with a pun on one side of their visual field, so that it would be processed first by one side of the brain — things viewed on the right go to the left hemisphere, and things on the left go to to the right. Among the puns they used was a variation on the spider joke above, along with this gem: “They replaced the baseball with an orange to add some zest to the game.” (“In honor of M. P. Bryden’s love for the game,” they wrote, referring to a psychologist who studied left-right differences, “our pun examples will be baseball-related when possible.”)
With each pun, Buchanan and her colleagues timed how long it took the participant to catch the wordplay on the screen. Overall, they found, puns in the right visual field sparked a quicker reaction time, suggesting that the left side — of the brain takes the lead when it comes to sorting out puns from straight language. “The left hemisphere is the linguistic hemisphere, so it’s the one that processes most of the language aspects of the pun, with the right hemisphere kicking in a bit later,” Buchanan told Scientific American.
The interaction between the right and left hemispheres “enables us to ‘get’ the joke because puns, as a form of word play, complete humor’s basic formula: expectation plus incongruity equals laughter,” Jacobson wrote. (The concept she’s describing is known as the benign violation theory of humor, the idea that to be funny, a joke has to subvert our expectations of the norm in a way that isn’t harmful or malevolent. A slapstick bit about someone falling down the stairs, for example, wouldn’t be funny if the person got seriously hurt in the process.) “In puns—where words have multiple, ambiguous meanings—the sentence context primes us to interpret a word in a specific way, an operation that occurs in the left hemisphere,” she continued. “Humor emerges when the right hemisphere subsequently clues us in to the word’s other, unanticipated meaning, triggering what Buchanan calls a ‘surprise reinterpretation.’”
For a pun to land, in other words, both sides of your brain have to engage in a little teamwork. And speaking of teamwork, did you hear the one about the baseball team’s new batter? He was a real hit.