A Spoonful of Humor Makes the Puzzle Brain Turn On

Scientists have discovered that we humans are much better at solving puzzles if we are entertained or in a good mood:

In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

(Full text: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/science/07brain.html)

So: what does this mean for narrative artists? Maybe it means we should leaven our leaden loaves of dirty laundry with a commedia routine.

kitestab1My work with contemporary narrative artists in all fields leads me to conclude that we are commonly eschewing the most traditional plot: time and space moving forward as it does in real life toward a climactic moment. Today’s storytellers are often creating story arcs that ask an audience to put together the pieces of a fragmented or shattered narrative — something like a puzzle. And if the science is correct, is it perhaps suggesting we may have better luck persuading our audiences to track the puzzle — to integrate the pieces or shards into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts — if they are able to laugh while they do it, or least be in a positive mood for a moment before plunging back into the puzzle?

3 thoughts on “A Spoonful of Humor Makes the Puzzle Brain Turn On

  1. It looks like they showed comedy routines before asking the test subjects to solve puzzles…

    What makes (me) laugh is out of the box thinking coupled with the tying together of different ideas. What if you think of the comedy routine as an instructional course for out-of-the-box creative thinking? What if instead of laughter/a good mood, the audience needs the reassurance of someone putting the pieces together, even if the pieces have nothing to do with the actual problem?

    Whenever I struggle, I like the reassurance that (a) I can do it, and (b) people have done similar things.

    At least, if I think about it in this way, I dont have to try to be funny.


  2. Hi Erik, interesting stuff. I wrote up a not-too-dissimilar study on my work blog here:
    which suggests that although direct anger can suppress creative, lateral gambits in problem solving, sarcastically expressed anger can actually facilitate it. The article makes the case that sarcasm has the property of containing contradiction, forcing you to figure out meaning for yourself, and shifting into a gear more suited for considering complexity.

    Leading this back to the study you cite, and your insight, I’m much in agreement with it. John Wright talks about 4 types of laughter: the surprise laugh, the recognition laugh, the visceral laugh, and the bizarre laugh. and I can see a case for each kind of humour provoking the audience into seeing things a different way – whether suddenly becoming aware of how chimpanzee feeding *really does* have something in common with a dinner party, or being challenged by non-sequitur to try and come up with at least some possible solutions.

    The only thing I would ponder – and this comes from my training in improvisational theatre, where we’re trained to be obvious where possible – is that this seems to be trying to help people solve problems of their own creation. A fragmented plot is harder to follow; you can aid with that by priming them for complexity, getting them to run around and bring blood flowing to their body, giving them an energy drink and plenty of water… or you could deliver a plot less hard to follow.

    So a question: what is the purpose of a more difficult plot? After all, some answers to that question (eg ‘people struggling and sometimes failing to reach understanding creates a sublime experience beyond rationality’) would suggest we shouldn’t be trying to help the audience over the humps, necessarily.

    Finally, I have to say that as a current psychologist, and ex-neuropsychologist, along with my performance work, I’m very happy to have found your blog – it’s fascinating.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Alex, and for the link to your blog. I’ll be tracking your work to see how it informs the intent of plotwrench.

      As for the purpose of a more difficult plot — that’s a great question. Your example is one of the best answers, in my opinion. It is very theatrical to create a plot that requires constant work to track, so long as it walks that fine line of not being so hard to track that the audience’s frustration overwhelms their desire to track it. If a plot is going to require the audience to dig through mounds of puzzle pieces for answers, I have found that they typically want to know two things up front in order to stay with the story: 1) that there actually is something to uncover, if they work to do so, and 2) that the answer they are working to uncover is going to be worth their effort.

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