Pun of a Kind

Your Brain on Puns


You may have noticed that I enjoy a good play on words. Particularly, the pun-intentional kind. This wasn’t always the case, and my typical response to puns involved an eye-roll and/or headshake. After years of watching my human cackle at her own pun-intended jokes, I started to think there might be something to these.

Many have argued against this form of banter, dubbing it the lowest form of wit. This title has also been reserved for sarcasm—another language my human is fluent in. Either way, this is not looking good for either of us. Still, I remain pun-fazed by the critics who I believe simply don’t “get it”.

To fully appreciate the mastery of a good pun, both sides, or hemispheres, of the brain are involved. A research study showed that the left and right hemispheres of the brain play different roles when it comes to interpreting puns. To do this, they presented the research participants with images of a pun to either the left or right visual field, and measured their reaction time, that is, how long it took them to understand the joke. Images presented in the left visual field are processed in the right hemisphere of the brain and vice versa.

The study showed that the images presented on the right visual field produced a faster reaction time. Therefore, the left hemisphere of the brain responds first, taking the lead in processing the language used in the pun. The right hemisphere of the brain, typically involved in creativity, then recognizes that the words have a pun-expected meaning. This helps us interpret the joke. Essentially, every time I make a punny joke, I’m simply demonstrating the ability to use the left and right hemispheres of my brain effectively.

Full disclosure: constant punning and tongue-in-cheeking can be a sign of brain damage. This is a condition called Witzelsucht (joke addiction in German) and it’s no laughing matter. This can be a side-effect of damage to the frontal lobe of the brain and can lead to a tendency to make puns and tell inappropriate jokes. This may sound like a few people you know—my human in particular. However, this condition is very rare and these patients are often unaware of their actions. This is certainly not the case for my human, as I’m sure she’s perfectly aware of how inappropriate she can be. So, there’s no need to pun-ic.


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