A Sense of Humor and Brainpower
Does being able to laugh at life make for a more powerful
mind? Perhaps. There are certainly many creative and intelligent
people who also like to have a good laugh. Consider the following
American physicist Richard Feynman was a joint recipient of
the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, for his work on quantum electrodynamics.
He is credited with the concept and early exploration of quantum
computing. He also had a very well developed sense of humor.
Here is how he is described in Wikipedia: "As well as
being an inspirational lecturer, bongo player, notorious practical
joker, and decipherer of Maya hieroglyphs, Richard Feynman was
regarded as an eccentric and a free spirit. He liked to pursue
multiple seemingly independent paths, such as biology, art, percussion,
and lock picking." An unusual character, to say the least.
Another example of the combination of a very creative mind
with a sense of humor is found in Albert Einstein. You may have
seen one of the more famous photos of him, in which he is sticking
his tongue out at the photographer. Einstein was known to be
very playful and full of laughter.
But is this just coincidence? We are all a collection of character
traits after all. Is it possible that Einstein and Feynman just
happen to have a well-developed sense of humor - which had no
relation to the creative work which they did? Maybe. But there
is a more likely explanation.
The Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm:
1) Write down the problem.
2) Think very hard.
3) Write down the solution.
Humor and Creativity
According to brain researchers, three parts of the brain light
up when you laugh at a joke. There is the thinking part that
helps you get the joke, the area that controls the movements
of your muscles and an emotional area that makes you feel good.
What makes something funny isn't as clearly understood, but humor
researcher (what a job!) John Morreall believes laughter is a
response to incongruities or stories that disobey conventional
Does that sound familiar? Stories that disobey conventional
expectations? That is the essence of lateral thinking. Consider
that while other mathematicians and physicists were more conventional,
Einstein was imagining himself riding on a beam of light. That's
a whole different approach - closer to the kind of thinking that
makes humor possible than to the usual analytical thinking of
mathematicians and physicists.
Of course a correlation doesn't prove causation. In other
words, Feynman's love of practical jokes and Einstein's readiness
to play and laugh don't necessarily cause more creativity. Instead,
it is possible that their creative genius and there sense of
humor are both caused (at least in part) by a different way of
If this different way of thinking explains the correlation
between humor and intellectual creativity, then developing your
sense of humor wouldn't necessarily help you to become more creative
(although you might be happier). To do that, you would have to
change the deeper patterns of thought. But then, what if humor
did just that?
Remember that humor lights up three parts of the brain, starting
with the thinking part that helps you get the joke. Consider
a one-liner, like "If at first you don't succeed, skydiving
may not be for you." A joke like this starts out with a
traditional saying ("If at first you don't succeed, try,
try again."), and then surprises you. It disobeys conventional
expectations. It goes in an unexpected direction.
What did the fish say when he ran into a concrete wall? -
To "get it," your mind must go in an unexpected
direction as well. In other words, creating or understanding
humor is essentially a process, and a practice of lateral thinking.
(Lateral thinking is a way of attacking problems from other angles,
as opposed to the more traditional linear and logical ways. )
Doesn't it seem likely that if you exercise your mind in this
way, you will also have more ability to think "outside the
box" - to be more creative in your problem solving?
Two eggs are in a frying pan and one says to the other, "Gosh
it's getting hot in here." The other one screams, "Oh
my god, it's a talking egg!"
Many people have observed that the relaxation which often
comes with laughter results in greater productivity. This makes
sense. It is easier to do good work, and have good ideas when
you are less stressed. But beyond that, I think the research
will eventually show that developing one's sense of humor specifically
develops a kind of thinking that leads to greater creativity.