cover image Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why

Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why

Scott Weems. Basic, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-465-03170-2

Cognitive neuroscientist Weems takes a crack at explaining humor, what it does to the brain, and what purpose(s) it may serve. He describes the effects of dopamine and how the anterior cingulate, the “part of the brain responsible for managing conflict,” overrides the “false expectation” required by many jokes. Weems renders extensive research accessible for a wide audience, citing one study that explored differing attributes of humor across nationality and gender, and another, dubbed “The Bill Cosby Effect,” that claims comedy’s analgesic effect in post-surgical recovery. Weems examines various categories of humor and what they say about human thought and behavior, including “gallows humor,” “lawyer jokes,” and meta-humor. He tackles the “Are women less funny than men?” controversy, notes a study that revealed the tangible negative impact of sexist jokes, outlines personality traits that supposedly contribute to a person’s funniness, ponders why computers can’t master humor, and investigates how comedic timing operates. In addition to a number of amusing jokes, Weems analyzes notable moments in comedy, including Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Hall performance and Gilbert Gottfried’s notorious “Aristocrats” routine from the roast of Hugh Hefner. Humor is a difficult, subjective topic of study, and while Weems doesn’t present major conclusions, the information is interesting and the commentary insightful. 6 b&w illus. (Mar.)