What happens in your brain when you hear a pun

The right hemisphere triggers the 'surprise reinterpretation'

Did you hear the one about the baseball team's new batter? 

He was a real hit.

Before you groan, you should know that the left and right sides of your brain had to collaborate mightily to understand that cringe-worthy pun, according to research published in Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition.

To better comprehend the brain's response to puns, researchers from the University of Windsor showed participants written puns on one side of their visual field. By presenting a pun to a participant's left side of their visual field, researchers could prompt the right side of the brain to begin processing the pun, and vice versa. For each pun, the researchers timed how long it took the participant to recognize the wordplay.

In general, participants reacted quicker to puns presented on their right side, suggesting that the left side of the brain kicks off the process of understanding the pun.

The left brain, in essence, sorts out what the sentence should mean, explains lead author Lori Buchanan. The left brain is the "linguistic hemisphere," she explained, which "processes most of the language aspects of the pun, with the right hemisphere kicking in a bit later" to explain the double meaning—and the joke—in a "surprise reinterpretation." Without the two spheres working together, we wouldn't be able to appreciate the pun.

This may help explain why some people with injuries to the right hemisphere of their brains suffer from "humor deficits": Even though they understand the joke, they "don't think things are funny anymore," Buchanan said (Romm, "Science of Us," New York Magazine, 12/6; Jacobson,Scientific American, December 2016). 

Related: Reading fiction makes you a better person, according to research

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