The Science of When We Laugh and Why


By Scott Weems

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An entertaining tour of the science of humor and laughter

Humor, like pornography, is famously difficult to define. We know it when we see it, but is there a way to figure out what we really find funny — and why?

In this fascinating investigation into the science of humor and laughter, cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems uncovers what’s happening in our heads when we giggle, guffaw, or double over with laughter. While we typically think of humor in terms of jokes or comic timing, in Ha! Weems proposes a provocative new model. Humor arises from inner conflict in the brain, he argues, and is part of a larger desire to comprehend a complex world. Showing that the delight that comes with “getting” a punchline is closely related to the joy that accompanies the insight to solve a difficult problem, Weems explores why surprise is such an important element in humor, why computers are terrible at recognizing what’s funny, and why it takes so long for a tragedy to become acceptable comedic fodder. From the role of insult jokes to the benefit of laughing for our immune system, Ha! reveals why humor is so idiosyncratic, and why how-to books alone will never help us become funnier people.

Packed with the latest research, illuminating anecdotes, and even a few jokes, Ha! lifts the curtain on this most human of qualities. From the origins of humor in our brains to its life on the standup comedy circuit, this book offers a delightful tour of why humor is so important to our daily lives.
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  • "Humor is worthy of serious academic study, [Weems] argues in his book, Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, because it yields insights into how our brains process a complex world and how that, in turn, makes us who we are.... Dr. Weems makes a good case that humor makes us our best selves, and that we should all laugh more."
    New York Times
  • "In Ha!, Scott Weems shows where funniness lies in the head."
    Washington Post
  • "[A]n intriguing book."
    Wall Street Journal
  • "[Weems] marshals an impressive range of studies and statistics to make his point. He shows that we process jokes in much the same way that we tackle problems, getting a rush of dopamine when we succeed. Laughter, meanwhile, brings all sorts of benefits.... [Ha!] makes a compelling case for seeing the comic side of life."
    Financial Times
  • "Mirth, points out cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, is still something of a conundrum--but one well worth cracking. His journey through the jovial looks in turn at what it is, what it is for and why we should cultivate it."
  • "Neuroscientist Scott Weems applies the scientific method to the human funny bone to find out what makes us laugh. He discovers that laughter is one way the brain deals with the discomfort of a particularly inappropriate joke, or the surprise of an unexpected punchline."
  • "Scott Weems melds brain science with corny jokes and factoids to delight readers who've ever wondered why one thing tickles their funny bones, but not the other.... Don't expect this book to crack you up. You'll find other things to do that, and this will explain why. For anyone who's ever ROFL, Ha! just raises the bar."
    The Bookworm Sez
  • "[A] stimulating overview of what researchers have learned about why we laugh."
    Kirkus Reviews
  • "Weems renders extensive research accessible for a wide audience.... Humor is a difficult, subjective topic of study, and while Weems doesn't present major conclusions, the information is interesting and the commentary insightful."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "[A] fascinating new book.... Weems makes the argument that jokes have deep sources in our human needs and psychologies. Human life is complex, not simple, although we have simple needs (food, sex, safety, sleep, friendship, etc.). Humor is a response to inevitable conflict. The humor isn't in the joke; it is in the attitudes of those telling and hearing the joke. The same joke will be funny sometimes to some people and entirely fail to rouse a response to different people at different times."
    Alva Noë, NPR's 13.7 blog
  • "Weems's central idea is that humor and laughter are by-products of the complex workings of the brain, rather than a separate function seated in some funniness control center. Drawing on both current neuroscience research and amusing anecdote, the author steers clear of reductionism and builds his case that humor is more diffuse and complex than other emotions and perceptions."
    The Scientist
  • "In Ha!, cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems analyzes how the punchline of a great joke, like a mini 'eureka!' moment, takes us by surprise and reframes our thinking. Humor, Weems argues, draws on our appetite for solving problems and helps us establish some order in a disordered world.... [I]lluminate[s] the inner workings of humor with a verve that befits the subject."
    Psychology Today
  • "Weems, a neuroscientist, explores what goes on inside our cranium when something makes us laugh; he also explores the essence of humor itself (Why can we tell when something's funny, but a computer cannot?), why we laugh longer and harder at some things than we do at others, and how a healthy sense of humor can help us have a healthy body."
    Booklist Online
  • "Move over, Henri Bergson, Weems explains the science of laughter way more charmingly. Our neurons are still cracking up."
    Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar
  • "Scott Weems' Ha! is an excellent, non-technical and engaging introduction to the field of humor studies and a much needed book.... Clear, entertaining, and full of personal anecdotes that enliven the discussion."
    Salvatore Attardo, Dean of Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts, Texas A&M University, and editor-in-chief of Humor
  • "Scott Weems' book Ha! is a superb explanation of humor that is simultaneously entertaining and informative. I enjoyed every page, and at the end came away with new insight into what really makes things funny."
    James A. Reggia, Professor of Computer Science, University of Maryland
  • "Weems explains what humor is, how things become funny, and why evolution gave us laughter.... It may seem a bit sad to see humor broken down into its cognitive elements like this; but it's also fascinating. We learn about why certain groups of people find certain types of humor funnier than others, and how important surprise is to humor. We also can appreciate the similarities between getting a joke and having a stroke of insight--the same cognitive processes go into effect when solving problems as when solving jokes, with the same pleasure evoked through dopamine."
    Greater Good
  • "A delightful, brainy, historical and contemporary cultural excursus that 'reveals why humor is so idiosyncratic, and why how-to books alone will never help us become funnier people.'... More rewarding than a thousand giggles."
    Ralph Nader,The Nader Page

On Sale
Mar 4, 2014
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Scott Weems

About the Author

Scott Weems received a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA, and an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. Previously a research scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language, he lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Learn more about this author