It has long been perceived by scientists and non-scientists alike that women and men process and react to humor in different ways. Now researchers from the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford University School of Medicine have neurological evidence to back that theory up. NewScientist.com has a summary of their study that is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While humor was the focus, their findings may lead to breakthroughs regarding other emotional differences between the sexes and even mental illnesses that target one gender over another.
During the study, groups of men and women were shown a series of cartoons. They gave a score to each based on how funny they thought it was. While the subjects read the cartoons, the scientists scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) instrument to determine the active areas. They could then quantify the level of activity in those areas by measuring blood oxygen levels.
The researchers found many similarities between the men and women. Their reaction times were similar, and they generally found the same cartoons to be humorous. As expected, the same language processing regions of the brain were activated.
The surprising result and significant difference was in the behavior of the nucleus accumbens area of the brain. The nucleus accumbens is a dopamine-rich collection of neurons that is thought to play a central role in reward, pleasure, and addiction. The team found that when a woman thought a cartoon was funny this area was more active than when a man found a cartoon funny. The converse was also true. When a man found a joke unfunny, the reward center was less active than when a woman did not find a joke humorous.
The researchers have concluded that the difference in nucleus accumbens behavior is based on expectation. Women did not expect to find a cartoon funny, and when it was, they were more pleased about it. Men, on the other hand, expected to be amused and were more disappointed when they were not.
Read the full article at NewScientist.com: “Women get a bigger buzz from cartoons“