Study finds that the use of dark ‘laughing-at’ humour is associated with decreased coupling of the prefrontal cortex to posterior brain areas when people are crying, while bright ‘laughing-with’ humour is associated with decreased coupling when people are laughing.


Humour is an important component of social interaction and can be used in a positive or negative way. It can be separated into two main types based on intent: humour with the intention to ‘laugh-with’ others or the intention to ‘laugh-at’ others. Laughing-with or bright humour helps form, enhance, and maintain social relationships while laughing-at or dark humour functions to manipulate control, enhance status, ostracize others, or enhance conformity. Bright humour is well-meaning, kind, and fun while dark humour is mean-spirited, malicious, and demonstrates superiority though cynicism, sarcasm, and irony.

The type of humour used is person-dependent and based on whatever interpersonal outcome that they find desirable or rewarding. Interpersonal intentions for humour use may be rooted in the coupling of brain regions involved in social-emotional function such as the prefrontal cortex and posterior association cortex. It is hypothesized that the prefrontal cortex controls incoming perceptual information (like laughing or crying) from the posterior cortex and determines the extent to which the brain is affected by social-emotional information by automatically increasing or decreasing this coupling. For example, prefrontal-posterior coupling would be naturally increased during aversive information, ‘protecting’ the individual from the negative input.

To investigate the neural basis of bright and dark humour, researchers based in Switzerland examined whether the type of humour used by individuals in the presence of incoming social information is linked to the functional coupling of the prefrontal cortex and posterior cortex. Fifty-two participants with an average age of 37 years were recruited for the study and completed a questionnaire as to the way they typically express humour. After, their prefrontal and posterior brain activity was recorded using EEG during a social-emotional situation. The situation consisted of the participant seated in a room with their eyes closed while they listened to sound clips of happy laughing or crying. There was a 2-minute break between each clip and participants were instructed to imagine that they were amidst the happenings. EEG data was analyzed using regression analysis.

If a decreased coupling between prefrontal and posterior brain regions was observed during the perception of crying stimuli, this was associated with a greater tendency of an individual to use dark humour. This suggests that their brain is more affected by crying and that it may be a more rewarding social-emotional response for them. In contrast, if a decreased coupling of these brain regions was observed during the perception of happy laughing, it found to be associated with a greater tendency of an individual to use bright humour. This decreased coupling suggests that individuals who tend to use bright humour find laughing responses rewarding and allow their brain to be more affected by this happy stimulus. These results demonstrate that an individual’s use of dark or bright humour is predicted by the changes in prefrontal-posterior coupling in response to crying and laughing, respectively.

Interestingly, these findings do not support a common belief that dark humour is associated an individual’s with poor perception of another’s emotions. If this was true, bright humour would have been more correlated with increased coupling of the brain regions during crying, suggesting that the brain is less affected or ‘closed’ to it. The study results suggest that individuals who tend to use dark, laughing-at humour may find rewarding value in feelings of despair, hurt, or depression in others. This is a feature that has been linked to psychopathic personality traits and sometimes devastating social consequences. In contrast, laughing with others is an immediately pleasurable and rewarding experience for most people who tend to use bright humour.


Written By: Fiona Wong, PhD

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