Dear brain, What’s so funny?
By- Dr. Ankit Sharma, BRA IRCH, AIIMS, New Delhi
This letter wishes to find you in good health, which sounds too-much-to-hope-for, since you’ve endured about 15 years of medical education and are currently navigating an era where ‘unwinding’ is associated, unfortunately, with hours and hours of scrolling on mobile phone for meaningless reels (Instagram) and controversial posts (Twitter). With just enough sympathy for all that, I beg to ask you the question, what’s so funny?
Don’t get me wrong. I believe we all have a sense of humour, some more than others, some better than others, and I believe it’s all centred on you, but you need to, for lack of a better and non-gen-Z term, chill! There is a time and place for laughter. Grand clinical rounds, exam viva, and serious family conversations (and watching The Kapil Sharma Show) are NOT appropriate for that.
There are times when I need to look serious. Even if the examiner said “sixty nine”, you could just take one for the team and not leak a smirk. I don’t care what my wife says, I do believe you’re mature enough. Also, it is not appropriate to burst out laughing when some young family member breaks an expensive crockery item and being a Punjabi, you know that the sound of the glass hitting the floor will be immediately followed by his mother’s hand hitting his cheek.
Consider this letter an official request, because I have given up trying to one-up you. I tried to find a loophole in your system by doing some research (limited to reading abstracts of the first three results on a lazily termed google search). I found that involuntary laughter involves the amygdala, thalamic/hypo‐ and subthalamic areas and the dorsal/tegmental brainstem. Now, neither am I a neurologist, nor am I sure what to do with that information to make you not burst out laughing when you should not. 
So, if a part of your brain is involved in involuntary laughter, how do people end up laughing (allegedly) at Sajid Khan’s movies when we are specifically told to leave our brains at home. All I could infer was that people laughed voluntarily, because they wanted to recover some of the money that seemed lost and also because humans might not be the most intelligent beings on earth, after all, at least not the ones who go for Housefull movies.
I also found out that the perception of humour was centered at the right frontal cortex, the medial ventral prefrontal cortex, the right and left posterior (middle and inferior) temporal regions and the cerebellum, and there were a lot of other terms like Dopamine, Serotonin, whipped cream, bread and chocolate syrup were involved (I now believe that I might be mixing up two different articles).
Yet, with nothing to do about that information, I can only request you to control your ‘involuntary’ reactions about ‘perceived’ funny situations. Basically, about those situations, just try and feel how Hrithik Roshan feels about Farhan Akhtar throwing his phone (it is not funny) and getting involved with his girlfriend (IT WAS NOT FUNNY).
I do understand that involuntary laughter and immature humour perception is important to a respectful human existence as they have played a big role in my marriage, and my two-year old daughter finding me funny, respectively. Yet, having seen the movie Joker (the oscar-winning one with Joaquin Phoenix, not the rightfully oscar-deserving one by Shirish Kunder) scares me to some extent, at how pathological unwarranted or ill-timed laughter can be perceived.
There will come a day when scientists figure out significantly more than the where of humour – cortical and subcortical structures, including temporo-occipito-parietal areas involved in perceiving mismatch between expected and presented stimuli – and figure out the what – to do about it to prevent people like me from making a fool out of themselves at social gatherings and tricky personal situations. But then, scientists are also busy (I wish I was making this up) teaching spinach to send emails, so I’m feeling like a pessimistic left-of-centre person when I say that I’m not sure where our priorities are at.[2, 3]
Until we do that, just chill. Imagine something unfunny, like an Instagram reel featuring cross-dressing humour, or any episode from Taarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashma.
Or just think about your career choices.
- Wild B, Rodden FA, Grodd W, Ruch W. Neural correlates of laughter and humour. Brain. 2003 Oct 1;126(10):2121-38.
- Vrticka P, Black JM, Reiss AL. The neural basis of humour processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2013 Dec;14(12):860-8.
- Wong MH, Giraldo JP, Kwak SY, Koman VB, Sinclair R, Lew TT, Bisker G, Liu P, Strano MS. Nitroaromatic detection and infrared communication from wild-type plants using plant nanobionics. Nature materials. 2017 Feb;16(2):264-72.
Author: Dr. Ankit Sharma, BRA IRCH, AIIMS, New Delhi
Panic-friendly doctor, tone-deaf percussionist, failed humorist, unimaginative writer. He blogs at notintandem.wordpress.com