A Good Snort


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.]

NEXT: Tinker, Tailor, Doctor, Spy

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  1. Outlaw humor now!!!!

  2. First we had Rush, now this.
    When will it coalesce or free-base–is that the right word?
    When will Joe Sixpack be able to snort some conclusions that will empower him to repeal the wur on durgs?

  3. “If humor were banned as dangerously addictive, most sitcoms and Hollywood comedies would be unaffected.”


    So true. The only funny new show is Arrested Development, which is funnier than 95% of sitcoms and comedies out there.

  4. Mark A.

    Regardless of the stimulus, *everything* that occurs somewhere in the brain involves the neurochemistry of the brain.

    The argument for the addictability (and / or tolerance) of a given substance is generally given in terms of its neurochemical response, usually endorphins. If humour does indeed trigger this response mechanism (with the same or similar results of other external stimuli), then the correlative argument concerning that response *is* sound.

    There may be valid discussion points for the safety of a particular substance that triggers this response mechanism, but it is the response mechanism, more than the substance itself, that is the final result.

  5. What happens in women’s brains when you tell a joke? Just curious.

  6. Do those weekend ‘humor’ shows on NPR count in this? If so, what the hell drug would they be simulating — alum?

  7. Mr. Sullum,

    It is a gargantuan leap to go from “The cartoons activated the same reward circuits in the brain that are tickled by cocaine…” to “…humor and cocaine… have similar effects on the brain”.

    That this is almost painfully obvious is evident by the fact that the subjective experience associated with each is entirely different. Activity in the nucleus accumbens is one thing; actual molecules of a substance binding to receptors is quite another. Are you suggesting that humor molecules are binding to my receptor sites on my neurons as would be the case were I to snort cocaine?

    I guess it depends on how far you’re willing to bend the the meaning of ‘similar’. To me, it means something like “largely the same but for some minor, inconsequential differences”. To you, it appears to mean (from my perspective), “having any commonalities whatsoever that support Jacob Sullum’s idealogy”.

  8. Mark A.

    So, do donut molecules bond to your receptors?

    The point is that claims about junk food and video games being ‘just as addictive as cocaine’ are based not on chemical bonds, but on the character of subjective experience. The argument breaks down because the concept of addiction is over simplified.

  9. But Jason, I said nothing of donuts, sex, football, gambling, or anything else which ostensibly causes addiction. Indeed, my post concerned a statement relating the effects on the brain of two vastly different stimuli. That is all.

  10. The whole addiction game is poorly understood because it is a two factor problem.

    Factor one is genetic.

    Factor two is trauma.

    What you have to look at clearly and closely is why some soldiers after an intense combat experience go to taking substances for relief from their feelings. Soldiers who are the most “drug free” group in America. Now in most cases this resort to substances is short term. For some (those with genetic disposition) the problem is long term.

    If you look deep into most addictions (food, drugs, alcohon, sex etc.) they are ways of dealing with long term pain caused by trauma. The food case is instructive. The best book on the subject from a layman’s perspective is “It is not what you are eating, It is what’s eating you”.

    Dr. Lonnie Shavelson has done some very interesting work with heroin addicts. About 70% of the female addicts from his sample were sexually molested. He wrote a book on the subject whose title I do not have at hand.

    Addiction is about pain relief. In fact the US Military is doing studies on this very subject to protect combat veterans from the problems of addiction or at least deal with the problem. Israel has a special village to deal with combat induced addiction.

    The Max Plank Institute has done some interesting work on the decay of pain memories in mice. They in fact have a special strain of mice whose memories of pain decay slower than average. Which may be the reason addiction is confined to a small subset of the population and why only a fraction of the population is susceptable to heroin addiction.

    The story of heroin is quite instructive. It was tried out on about ten people when it was first developed and those ten or so did not become addicted. Doctors thought they had developed a non-addictive pain killer.

    The key in all this is the amygdala where long term pain memories are stored.

    So in fact a Big Mac is equal to a shot of heroin. Because both do the same job. Relieve pain. That some prefer the stronger heroin is only a sign that their pain memories may be more intense.

    Right now all this brain study knowledge is confusing because we have the wrong model for addiction. I expect as more and more knowledge is developed we will arrive at a correct model. I’m betting on this:

    Chronic drug use (addiction) is cause by chronic (but medically unrecognized) pain.

    Kind of seems obvious when stated that way, eh?

  11. Rdale’s remarks support my position.

    In addition the nation’s largest group of drug addiction councilors NAADAC support my position. Several years back they had Dr. Shavelson give a number of lectures to their group.

    Jacob Sullum who I mostly agree with on most things political is relying on folk understanding for his position: i.e. “addiction is a failure of will”.

    My position is that addiction is a symptom of pain. In fact many mental health professionals are coming to the conclusion that drug addiction in youth is a marker for child abuse. In Mass. the police are given a mental health guide so stating.

    We used to think that one of the markers for our brand of civilization was the desire to relieve pain. When did we decide to become uncivilized?

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