The Benefits of Humor in Challenging Times

Professor Ori Amir holds microphone while standing by machine.

Difficult times, like those the world is facing now with war raging and a pandemic that seems to refuse to end, are a challenging context for comedy.

Or are they? Does humor break through darkness and, in fact, help people cope?

Ori Amir is both a visiting professor of psychological science and a stand-up comedian who studies how the brain actually works when it is creating something funny. “Some people do like to joke in the harshest situations,” he notes. “Humor can be a way to handle stressful things.”

He’s got good company in that belief. The idea of the healing power of humor goes back at least to the 14th century, when French surgeon Henri de Mondeville (1260-1320) is said to have encouraged telling patients jokes as part of healing. Groucho Marx was quoted as saying “A clown is like aspirin, only he works twice as fast.”

Neuroscientists have no agreement yet on what precisely humor is. But they do believe that laughter releases endorphins—naturally produced brain chemicals that reduce pain and create a feeling of enjoyment. Amir says that humor allows people to see things—even horrible things--in a different perspective. “That’s what a punchline does,” he remarks with the understanding of someone who has written and delivered many of them. “It is a shift in perspective from what came before the punchline. A surprise.” Even facing a dire situation, “you might joke about it”—what’s known as gallows humor—"and be able to cope better as a result.”

Amir took up comedy at about the same time as he came to Southern California from Israel to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience. He discovered the vibrant comedy community of Los Angeles and became part of it, not only as a stand-up comedian, but as a researcher as well. He uses brain imaging with fMRI machines, along with eye-tracking, computational models, and artificial intelligence, in groundbreaking ways to see in real time why some people are just better than others at being funny. Recently, Pomona students have been coauthors on two published papers dealing with the neuroanatomy of comedians and the creative process of comedy writing and about attention to salient scene features by improv comedians.

Humor not only relieves stress in challenging times—it also works across cultures. Amir has done comedy performances in both Russia and Ukraine and finds that humor can be universal. “Some jokes just work everywhere,” he says.

Responses to comedy do vary, though, even among close neighbors. “In Sweden,” he found, “the audience laughs at pretty much all your jokes, but with a delay of two seconds. One second is for translating in their mind from English to Swedish, and the next second is to make sure that the joke is politically correct.” Go across the border into Denmark, though, “and if they find something funny, they laugh. They don’t care if it’s politically correct.”

What is Amir’s prescription for coping with challenging times? Laugh, he recommends. “Humor can help change our perspective on harsh realities and make threats”—even if only temporarily—“feel less insurmountable.”

So, “Have you heard the one about . . .”