Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris 6 ; EA4556, Laboratoire Epsilon, Dynamique des capacités humaines et des conduites de santé, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier 3, France
Impairment of the perception or comprehension of humor is observed in patients with focal brain lesions in both hemispheres, but mainly in the right frontal lobe. Studies by functional magnetic resonance imaging in healthy subjects show that humor is associated with activation of two main neural systems in both hemispheres. The detection and resolution of incongruity, cognitive groundings of humor, are associated with activation of the medial prefrontal and temporoparietal cortex, and the humor appreciation with activation of the orbito-frontal and insular cortex, amygdala and the brain reward system. However, activation of these areas is not humor-specific and can be observed in various cognitive or emotional processes. Event-related potential studies confirm the involvement of both hemispheres in humor processing, and suggest that left prefrontal area is associated with joke comprehension and right prefrontal area with the resolution stage. Humor thus appears to be a complex and dynamic functional process involving, on one hand, two specialized but not specific neural systems linked to humor apprehension and appreciation, and, on the other hand, multiple interconnected functional brain networks including neural patterns underlying the moral framework and belief system, acquired by conditioning or imitation during the cognitive development and social interactions of the individual, and more distributed systems associated with the analysis of the current context of humor occurrence. Disturbances of the sense of humor could then result from focal brain alterations localized in one or two of the specialized areas underlying the comprehension or appreciation of humor, or from perturbations of the network interconnectivity in non-focal brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or schizophrenia.