Nature News Service reports on a study in which neuroscientists at Stanford showed 16 people funny cartoons while using functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine their brain activity:
The cartoons activated the same reward circuits in the brain that are tickled by cocaine, money or a pretty face, the neuroscientists found. One brain region in particular, the nucleus accumbens, lit up seconds after a rib-tickler but remained listless after a lacklustre cartoon.
The fact that humor and cocaine (along with many other sources of pleasure) have similar effects on the brain is another reason to be skeptical the next time someone cites brain research while claiming that fast food or gambling or video gaming is "just as addictive as" [insert name of scary drug here]. All these things can be consumed in moderation, and all can be consumed in excess. Anything that provides pleasure or relieves stress (including "money or a pretty face") can be the focus of a hard-to-break habit. MRI scans do not add much to this basic truth.
The entertainment industry needn't worry that the government will read too much into this study, however. If humor were banned as dangerously addictive, most sitcoms and Hollywood comedies would be unaffected.
[Thanks to Thomas Roberts for the link.]