Stories with humor are beneficial to the brain and to cognitive development
Updated: Sep 20
Childhood is a time during which we learn a lot and cognitive development is being constantly stimulated when we are little. Stories with humor in them also have an important role in this development.
Each new stimulus children receive makes them explore the world, their senses, and, therefore, learn and interact with their environment. Reading stories is a way to stimulate these learnings.
In this article, we explained that reading stimulates the growth of white matter in the brain, which is a set of nervous fibers in the brain that help it to learn and function.
The benefits of stories with humour for kids
Researchers Olufolake Orekoya, Edmund SS Chan and Maria PY Chik, all from Hong Kong Baptist University, wrote the article “Humor and Reading Motivation in Children: Does the Tickling Work?”. In this article, they explain how reading and, mainly, literature with elements of humor can be beneficial to children’s learning.
They present a two-year investigation about learning and teaching children’s literature done by five universities with elementary school students. It reveals that most children prefer reading books that make them laugh.
The results also showed that what makes children avid readers are books with funny stories. The study reported what were children’s preferences when it came to reading, which goes from funny stories to adventurous ones, fantasy and others.
Children are easily adaptable to the bond in humor and creativity, both of which help cognitive development. As children grow up and become more cognitively mature, they may appreciate different forms of humor present in the stories.
Reading, humor and cognitive development
The article states that “humor appreciation is closely related to cognitive development”. “When a child is engaged in humour appreciation, he or she intends to finish a problem-solving exercise to identify and unfold the incongruity hidden beneath the humour stimuli.” (Zigler, Levine, & Gould, 1967)
“Literature confirms the benefits and significance of humour for school learning socially, cognitively, affectively and behaviorally since it facilitates playful learning environment, lessened learning anxiety, stimulated students’ learning motivation, and deepened teacher-student relationship (Davies & Apter, 1980).”
“When children read humourous texts, they engaged in a ‘cognitive play’, ‘where words and concepts are used in ways that are surprising, unusual, and incongruous, activating schemas with which they are not normally associated’ (Martin, 2007, p. 109; Shultz & Robillard, 1980).”
According to Rod A. Martin, reading as a cognitive activity possibly activates “positive emotion of mirth (i.e. enjoyment), leading to enhancement of creativity, memory and social virtues that include: sense of responsibility, helpfulness and generosity) (Martin, 2007).”
John Morreall, who is a PhD in Philosophy and Emeritus Professor of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, evaluated three traditional theories regarding laughter and humor: the Theory of Superiority, the Theory of Relief and the Theory of Incongruity. Based on these theories, he put forward a new one which claims that humor is cognitive play.
John explains that “not all laughter is about persons, and so there need be no comparison of persons”, as it was stated in the Theory of Superiority of humor. He says “we may be amused by a stage comedian doing a perfect impression of some movie star without comparing ourselves with that comedian or the movie star. And even if we do compare ourselves with persons about whom we are laughing, we need not judge ourselves superior to them. They may make us laugh by surprising us with unexpected skills that we lack.”
“After two millennia in which the Superiority Theory was the only widely accepted account of laughter, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory emerged in the 18th century. According to the Relief Theory, laughter operates like a safety valve in a steam pipe, releasing built-up nervous energy.”
This theory, however, started to be questioned. The act of speaking and the elements of humor in said speech didn’t seem to require emotions. In addition, some experiences of fun also rely solely on the element of surprise. The Theory of Incongruity was one of the most widely accepted in the twentieth century, since it stated that “humorous amusement is a reaction to something that violates our mental patterns and expectations.”
Reflections on the theories of humor
After considering the theories of humor mentioned above, professor John Morreall wrote that there are four insights. “First, humor is a cognitive phenomenon – it involves perceptions, thoughts, mental patterns, and expectations. Secondly, humor involves a change of cognitive state. Thirdly, that cognitive change is sudden. And fourthly, amusement is pleasurable.”
To these four insights he added others:
“ 1) Humor is a nonserious activity in which we suspend practical concern and concern about what is true.
2) Humor is primarily a social experience.
3) Humor is a form of play in which laughter serves as a play signal. Coining the term shift for a sudden change, we can say that humor involves the enjoyment of cognitive shifts.”
Putting all these ideas together, he presented the following theory of humorous amusement:
Laughter makes people experience a cognitive shift and “their playful disengagement and their pleasure are expressed in laughter, which signals to others that they can relax and enjoy the cognitive shift too.”
How humor affects the brain
Brian David Boyd, professor from The University of Auckland in New Zealand, explains that laughter, although it is often triggered by words, is in itself pre-verbal and non-verbal.
According to an excerpt from his article, “laughter and sobbing are ‘the ﬁrst two social vocalizations that children make’; unlike speech, they are relatively involuntary, socially contagious, and with a consistent emotional valence; like other primate social calls they do not require ﬁne articulation but only an ’alternation of the presence and absence of vocal sounds, superimposed on relatively more stable mouth postures,’ and their motor activity depends on mid-brain and brain stem circuits rather than the higher speech centers.”
Training for the unexpected
This confident sharing of expectations that happens in verbal communication is essential for social play. This also happens in games and activities, so that there is as much room as possible for the unexpected.
“Shared expectations that allow for surprises that catch us off guard, that simulate risk and stimulate recovery, are the key not only to play of all kinds but also to humor. In jokes we are often primed for surprise, but despite our actively seeking to anticipate an unexpected resolution, the punch line still takes us unawares, but in a way that allows the tripping up of our expectations to be followed by a swift regaining of balance.”
Laughter brings us together
The article also says that “our very recognition that we share such expectations makes our amusement socially binding in the way that physical play, through its dependence on the less novel expectations of ritualized behavior, also serves to unite.
If a would-be joke does not take us by surprise, if, as we say, we see the punch line a mile off, we will not ﬁnd it funny. On the other hand, springing a joke with insufﬁcient preparation can also ruin it.
But if our expectation has been primed, if we know a joke is coming, and we still ﬁnd the punch line takes us by surprise, it will be even funnier: it resembles exactly the relationship between the keen general expectation of play, and the acute particular surprises animals, including humans, especially enjoy in play.”
At last, in his article, professor Brian brings up a question asked by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett: “What advantage could Homo sapiens gain from laughing? Why would laughter and humor have evolved as behaviors that matter so much to us?”
His answer was the following: “Laughter, by signaling our pleasure in cognitive play, invites and encourages us to prepare playful surprises for one another. Playing socially with our expectations reinforces our sense of solidarity, our recognition of the huge body of expectations we share; it trains us to cope with and even seek out the unexpected that surrounds and can extend these expectations; and yet it can offer a ﬁrst more or less playful warning to those who diverge from them in ways we reject.”
Written by Débora Nazário
Translated by Mariana Gruber
Now that we already know the role humor has in stories and children’s preferences for funny tales, here are some reading recommendations!
Truth and Tales, the app we developed, has many stories that are full of twists and humor!
They are Teaching Stories, which you can learn more about here. The Teaching Stories usually make use of lots of humor in order to develop a certain level of preparedness to the unexpected as well as give the stories a special touch!
The Truth and Tales story called “The Child and the Dragon” presents several funny characters and dialogue, in addition to twists and turns the reader never sees coming!
Download the app and try reading, playing or listening to our stories!