The science of humour: Why laughing helps you learn

The science of humour: Why laughing helps you learn

When something is funny it’s much more memorable. From an educational standpoint, the solution is obvious: use humour to help children learn better.

Have you ever noticed how good your child is at reciting lines from their favourite cartoon, and wished they had the same capacity for learning their schoolwork? Actually, they do. The key is that cartoons are funny and research shows that this is a great recipe for memorability.

Edu-comedy pioneers Robert Kaplan and Gregory Pascoe were among the first scholars to draw a link between humour and learning. In a groundbreaking study (1977), they found that inserting funny content in their lectures significantly increased students' recall. A number of later studies came to the same conclusion (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011). There are two main reasons behind the contribution of humour to the learning process: a psychological one and a neuroscientific one.

The science of humour: the effort we put into interpreting the funny element makes the content around it stick more!

The psychological reason as to why humour aids retention of new information has been investigated by various scientists. Most of the recent studies have sprung from Berlyne’s theory (1960) according to which humour is a two-phase process where the stimulus contains an inconsistency that needs to be recognised and reinterpreted by the receiver of the joke. The humorous element arises from the reanalysis of the odd element.

The idea then is that this extra processing effort required to capture the inconsistency and reanalyse it allows for the content that surrounds it to be elaborated on more. Because of this extra processing effort, humorous content is engraved in the long-term memory, whereas non-humorous content which is processed more smoothly is just as rapidly forgotten. This theory was supported by experimental evidence from various studies (Schmidt & Williams, 2001; Schmidt, 2002; Wanzer et al., 2010).

The science of humour: when something makes us laugh, we want to do it again and again. If the same thing also teaches us something, doing it again and again means learning more and more!

The neuroscientific reason behind the educational effectiveness of humour lies in the chemicals released by the brain when we encounter a humorous situation, or, more specifically, when we laugh. A study by neuroscientist Roy Wise (2004) found that humour activates the brain’s dopamine reward system (you know, in the same way that eating chocolate or winning a competition does), and that this pleasure chemical is crucial both for motivation and long-term memory. It is also a key factor for habit formation in that something that makes us feel good will trigger the desire to do it again. In other words, not only does humour make children learn, it makes them want to learn.

Humour has also been proven to relieve stress and, if that wasn’t enough, social laughter (laughing with others) has been shown to support long-term relationships. In fact, our brain releases opioids (the human-made, naturally-occurring ones) after having a good laugh with our pals. These chemicals facilitate social bonding and communication and reduce tension and anxiety (Manninen et al., 2017).

All of this has exciting implications for vocabulary learning. As well as making language acquisition more fun and engaging, pairing words with hilarious illustrations means that children learn these words faster and remember them better. And best of all, they get a healthy dose of dopamine in the process.


Banas, J., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D. and Liu, S. (2011) A Review of Humor in EducationalSettings: Four Decades of Research. Communication Education, 60(1), 115-144.

Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kaplan, R. and Pascoe, G. (1977). Humorous Lectures and Humorous Examples: Some Effects upon Comprehension and Retention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(1), 61-65.

Manninen, S., Tuominen, L., Dunbar, R., Karjalainen, T., Hirvonen, J., Arponen, E., Hari, R., Jääskeläinen, I., Sams, M., Nummenmaa, L. (2017). Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(25), 6125-6131.

Minchew, S. And Hopper, P. (2008) Techniques for Using Humour and Fun in the Language Arts Classroom. The Clearing House. 81, (5), pp. 167-80.

Schmidt, S. (2002) The humour effect: Differential processing and privileged retrieval. Memory, 10(2), 127-138, DOI: 10.1080/09658210143000263

Schmidt, S., Williams, A. (2001). Memory for humorous cartoons. Memory & Cognition, 29(2), 305-311.

Wanzer, M., Frymier, A. & Irwin, J. (2010) An Explanation of the Relationship between Instructor Humor and Student Learning: Instructional Humor Processing Theory. Communication Education, 59(1), 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/03634520903367238

Wise, R. (2004) Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 5, pp. 483-494.