This free Information Age Education
is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
Education (IAE) publications.
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are
In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are
available: Validity and Credibility
of Information; Education for Students’
Futures; Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
Humor Adds Neurological, Cognitive,
and Physiological Sustenance to Learning
Michael A. Rousell
Southern Oregon University
The comedian W.C. Fields once said that, “I believe in clubs for
kids, but only when kindness fails.” If you smiled or laughed at that
comment, it probably also enhanced the mood of others who observed your
reaction. Research on what are called mirror neurons demonstratively shows the contagious effects triggered by expressions of humor.
The neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni discovered that we and some primates have mirror neurons in our premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex
that activate both when we perform certain actions and when we observe
someone else performing them (Iacoboni, 2009). Neuroscientist Michael
Gazzaniga observed that, “Not only do we unconsciously copy the
mannerisms of others, but we like and have smoother interactions with
them when they copy our mannerisms. Reflexively, a connection is
formed, and we tend to ‘like’ people who are similar to us” (Gazzaniga,
2011). Humor increases the essential educational elements of rapport,
enhanced trust, and collaboration within a classroom. This is
especially applicable if students work in groups. Beginning your class
with humor and sprinkling humor throughout the day thus creates a
trusting collegial atmosphere.
The Use of Classroom Humor
Humor is holistic. Appropriately used, it can serve as a tremendous
teaching tool (Trout, 2013). Its purposeful cultivation can nourish
both effective teaching and learning (Morrison, 2012). Think of it as a
skill that can be practiced and enhanced. Ziv (1988) discovered that
when teachers were trained to use humor in their classroom—even as few
as three times per lesson—learning increased by almost 15 percent, and
continued throughout the entire semester.
My door opens, students arrive, and they prepare for class. They look
up at the screen to see a one-minute humorous video segment, a recent
cartoon, or a quote like the one that started this article. They laugh.
Even the act of dimming the lights for the daily humor-starter
typically prompts a smile. Now they are ready to learn. Research shows
how feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are all released when their smiles flash across their faces (Lane, et al., 2000).
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter most closely linked with humor, is often
considered the brain’s reward chemical. That’s why it is linked to
motivated learning and attention. The serotonin release brought on by
their smiles lifts their moods (Karren, et al., 2010). Smiles also
release neuropeptides that
work toward fighting off stress. This not only relaxes their bodies,
but it can lower their heart rate and blood pressure (Seaward, 2013).
Humor is an educational elixir we can all include in our classrooms.
The most effective teachers already do so.
I do most of my work in groups, but even lecture-based teachers can
improve retention and learning with humor. More than 500 students at
San Diego State were enrolled in what they thought was a normal
introductory psychology course on Freudian personality theory, but
different students attended different kinds of lectures (Kaplan and
Pascoe, 1977). One lecture incorporated humor relating to the course
content. A second lecture incorporated humor that wasn’t related to the
material but still kept students entertained. And a third lecture used
no humor at all, only a serious treatment of the subject material. When
the researchers tested students’ retention six weeks after the
lectures, they found that those who attended the two sets of lectures
that used humor related to course content scored significantly higher
than the other students.
Humor doesn’t just improve learning and engagement, it may even make us
smarter. Consider the results of the following research on humor and
problem solving (Isen, et al., 1987). One hundred and sixteen students
at the University of Maryland were divided into four groups and then
told to complete a problem-solving task. Prior to the task, each group
received a different intervention. The first group watched a
compilation of funny bloopers. The second group watched a five-minute
documentary on Nazi concentration camps. The third group watched a math
film. The fourth group had a choice of relaxing, snacking, or light
Each of the above manipulations was intended to affect mood but only
one was meant to elicit laughter. The following task, called the Drucker candle insight task,
followed the intervention. Each subject received a box of tacks, a
candle, and a book of matches. They were then asked to attach the
candle to the wall so that it burns without dropping wax on the floor.
(Pause here if you want to think of the correct response.)
The solution: Attach the empty box to the wall using one of the tacks
and then use wax or another tack to secure the candle atop the box.
What makes this task challenging for many people is functional fixedness—the
inability to view the box as serving any purpose other than holding the
tacks. The candle doesn’t have to be directly attached to the wall. And
boxes can do more than just hold small objects.
Only 32 of the 116 subjects suggested a correct solution. The only one
of the four groups with a success rate better than 30% was the group
who had been shown the funny bloopers; this group had a 58% success
Humor quickly gets to the essence of understanding and diffusing
complex issues (Sylwester, 2013). It engages parts of the brain needed
for critical thinking. Test your insight with this short activity.
Decipher what word goes together with this three-word group: Cottage,
Swiss, Cake. In the remote semantic association test
you get 15 seconds to figure out that “Cheese” is the answer. The test
gets progressively more difficult. Time yourself to see if you can do
the following grouping in 15 seconds: Tooth, Potato, Heart. If you
answered correctly, you are uncommon, as less than one in five gives a
correct response (I’ll provide the correct answer below). Subjects at
Northwestern University who were in a good mood at the time solved more
of a set of similar problems successfully, and they also engaged a
specific part of the brain called the anterior cingulate (Karuna, et al., 2008).
A positive mood improves focus by helping the anterior cingulate hold
back unwanted responses such as “ache” with tooth, “eye” with potato,
and “attack” with heart. You arrive at the correct answer “sweet”
sooner when you’re in a good mood (sweet tooth, sweet potato, and
sweetheart). Watson, Matthews, and Allman (2007) suggest that both the
dopamine centers and the anterior cingulate are active in humor. The
funnier the jokes, the more engaged the anterior cingulate.
Insight isn’t the only complex cognitive skill that benefits from
humor. One study showed that reading funny jokes also improves student
scores on creativity tests, reflecting increased mental fluency,
flexibility, and originality (Ziv, 1976). Finish your class with a
laugh or smile. The peak-end rule
suggests that we tend to judge our experiences by how we felt during
the peaks and ends. Teachers who finish their lessons with a cartoon,
joke, or funny clip prepare students for emotional engagement in the
next class. Our minds need emotional engagement just like they need
exercise. Without that engagement, we become passive to our
environment. Learning is a game, so let’s play!
Gazzaniga, M. (2011). Who’s in charge: Free will and the science of the brain. New York: Harper Collins.
Iacoboni, M. (2009). Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York: Picador.
Isen, A., Daubman, K., & Nowicki, G. (1987). Positive affect facilitates problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Kaplan, R., & Pascoe, G. (1977). Humorous lectures and humorous examples: Some effects upon comprehension and retention. Journal of Educational Psychology.
Karren, K., Smith, L., Gordon, K., & Frandsen, K. (2010). Mind/body health: The effect of attitudes, emotions and relationships. New York: Benjamin Cummings.
Karuna, S., Kounios, J., Parrish, T., &
Jung-Beeman, M. (2008). A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight
by positive affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Lane, R., Nadel, A., & Kaszniak, A., eds. (2000). Neural correlates of conscious emotional experience. In Cognitive neuroscience of emotion. New York: Oxford.
Watson, K., Matthews, B., & Allman, J. (2007). Brain activation during sight gags and language-dependent humor. Cerebral Cortex.
Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication. Journal of Experimental Education.
Ziv, A. (1976). Facilitating effects of humor on creativity. Journal of Educational Psychology.
Michael Rousell, Ph.D., is a
Certified Counseling Psychologist and associate professor of Education
at Southern Oregon University. His book, Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives,
Praeger, 2007, is in 1000 institutions in 60 countries. He spent 25
years studying life-changing-moments. You can reach him at email@example.com.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help