Neurosciences of humor: Is albur the same thing for the brain as ingenious words?

Neurosciences of humor: Is albur the same thing for the brain as ingenious words?

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.George Orwell (1903-1950) British writer.

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) British philosopher, of Austrian origin.

We use morality as a method to limit the behavior of others. Robert Kurzban

  • In the waiting room of an airline they prevent passengers from being robbed: We ask you to take care of your belongings, before they fly before you!
  • You cry when I leave, but you rejoice when I dilate (Jiménez, 1991).
  • If studying gives fruit, let trees study.
  • Life is a sweet potato, grab your right (Jiménez, 1991).
  • As the gardener says, let's be happy while we can.
  • Grandpa I give you your little pig, no little daughter, better take me out for a while in the sun (Ruiz, 2014).
  • The confusion is very clear!
  • What do you feel when I leave? (Jiménez, 1991).
  • Blessed Adam who had no mother-in-law.
  • Take care of the albureros, because without you noticing, you are talking about holes!

Conceptually the witty words and the dace, as you can read in these examples, they are different things, but for the brain it is the same, because they need to travel the same neural pathways to make sense and cause laughter as we will see later.

The Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis said that “To know the Mexican culture you have to start to know the albures, which are part of it. We all talk in two ways”(Escobedo, 2016).

Language becomes a symbolic game that allows us to be inside or outside of reality in a social group or even when we have an internal dialogue. When we talk to someone, we not only communicate our needs, it is a “mental chess” as described by Lourdes Ruiz, the masked purslane champion of albur in Tepito (Ruiz, 2014), is to connect with culture, ideology, memory (individual and social), personal experiences, codes of belonging to a nation, politics, social life, pleasure, learning, sex, intelligence, is flexibility, mental agility, and much more.

However, on the other side of the coin, language is confusion, it is deception, it is taking advantage of others, it is distorting reality, it is mistrust and even encrypting or covering up a message when you really want to say another: I say it to Juan, so that Peter understands it ”, or we say“ between joke and joke, the truth is shown ”. The pun is very different from being offensive, rude and disrespectful.


  • 1 How did the language come about?
  • 2 Language is designed to confuse us
  • 3 The nature of the game remains in adults
  • 4 Neurosciences and humor
  • 5 What happens in our brain since they tell us the joke until we laugh?
  • 6 Do men and women laugh alike at the pun?
  • 7 Why don't all brains laugh with puns?
  • 8 As a final reflection

How did the language come about?

About him language origin, the science popularizer, Eduardo Punset notes: In the first place, the sounds appeared, then it seems that the music emerged, later the language and much later the writing. Understanding the origin of language within this sequence is somewhat complex and groups numerous hypotheses and speculations, but let me focus on a fascinating finding on this issue, it is the FOXP2 gene (For professional albureros, the name of this gene would also sound like albur, the italics are mine). Mice communicate through ultrasound that is imperceptible to our ear and it has been seen that the FOXP2 gene is crucial for this type of communication, if a mouse is born without this gene, it does not work properly, it will not be able to communicate with its mother. It turns out that this gene is also found in other mammals including humans, in fact, it has been seen that people born with a defective version of this gene cannot speak, have a hard time controlling their mouth movements and understanding structures. The good thing about having identified a gene that relates to language now opens doors for scientists to study its evolution and partly that of language itself. And, they have seen that FOXP2 has changed a lot throughout the human evolution about two hundred thousand years ago, more or less, when our species began to differentiate itself from other hominids (Punset, 2013).

We find different types of language around us: hieroglyphs, radio or television ads, when we read a book or when we listen carefully to our loved ones, but also when we offend someone or if someone offends us. Language allows us to have an advantage in life over other species, it also allows us to have fun and create different linguistic structures.

Language is designed to confuse us

Yes we cant understand a languageWe are isolated from the world or it makes us live alone in our own world, but it can also be a paradox, a metaphor for reality or many more intricate linguistic mechanisms that make it difficult to understand even apparently speaking the same language.

According to evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania, language is designed to confuse us. In the brain it has specific functions, but it also works by modules and these can operate in a contradictory way. The same brain can harbor two contradictory beliefs on the same issue. This can be seen in visual perception and also in language, it is called: brain modularity. What you see is a result of context. Thus, the human brain can house two mutually incompatible beliefs at once, from perception to morality (Punset, 2012).

Some linguistic concepts related to humor and witty words

  • Metonymy: It is a phenomenon of linguistics with which we can come across when we refer to a metaphor, since it is the change of name of a circumstance or object product of time, the way or the reason for which it is used. A metonymy in a truly gross affair and with no intention of being more than a SUPERNAME (Venemedia, 2014). Example: Would you grant me this piece? (is to invite a person to dance at a party). Again for the experts in the bore the very name of this concept would again be a word, “I am so skilled in linguistics that you metonymy without you noticing”.
  • Homonymy: two or several words are homonymous if they coincide in their written or oral form but have different origins. It is a relationship between words. It also has two modalities: those that are written equal and homophones are those that are pronounced the same. In Spanish, homographs are homophones (but not vice versa, since cow and cow are homophones but not homologous) (Wikilengua, 2017). Examples homologous homologous: bank (small furniture to sit) and bank (banking institution). Homophony homophony: Johny Lotengo (name of a person); I don't even have it (not having something).
  • Paronymy It is a semantic relationship that consists of two (or more) similar words in the sound, but that are written differently and have different meanings. Example: unclog (release the straps) and deflate (deflate). Hunt (capture an animal) and marry (unite a couple) (Grammatics, 2013).
  • Polysemy: Polysemy (of "poly", many, and the Greek "semia", meaning), in linguistics occurs when the same word or linguistic sign has several meanings or meanings. A polysemic word is one that has two or more meanings that relate to each other. Example: Cat: Animal of the family of the felines. Heavy lifting tool. Native dance of Uruguay and Argentina. Type of game Raised (Wikipedia, 2017).
  • Albur (Mexico): In Mexico, albur is a play on words where participants (formerly only among men, then women also began to participate) exchange phrases with a more or less hidden sexual sense. It is considered that someone "wins" the exchange when his interlocutor is silent or his response is not so ingenious (generally, it is interpreted, especially at the time when the participants were only male, who "wins" ends "demonstrating" that plays the role of active homosexual, while the one who "loses" ends up being the passive homosexual). The Mexican Picardy book, by Mexican Armando Jiménez, made since its first edition (1958) one of the best collections of albur, in particular, and popular speech, in general, in the streets of the Historic Center of Mexico City (Wikipedia , 2017). If someone is very nervous, the first thing you invite is a “white bouquet tea to relax” in the words of Lourdes Ruíz, not everyone understands (Escobedo, 2016). This albur refers to a male ejaculation with relaxation included. At the tip of that hill there is a dwarf elephant; you, who know how to sign, make me one with your hand. ”Do you want beans in sacks? Snow White is interested. I'm going to introduce Paty the big head.
  • The calambur: It is a play on words that, based on homonymy, paronymy or polysemy, consists in modifying the meaning of a word or phrase by grouping its syllables differently. For example: banana is / silver is not. Hello my Name Is Enrique Cimiento (enrichment) (Wikipedia, 2016). "DON'T MISS ME ENGLISH" sneaky way of saying, "don't bother me, don't bother me or don't fuck me." "Do you like it, that Son?" (Refer to the preference for popular melodies and customs in Mexico) and "Do you like messing" (Refers to the preference for an erect penis, as an alburera expression in Mexico).
  • Humor: They are all those experiences, sensations, representations and ways of understanding the reality that amusement and joy have as a story. Humor is directly related to the ability to generate entertainment in people, which is present in most situations through laughter. Humor is considered to be a capacity that all human beings possess regardless of culture, the socio-economic or geographical environment in which they are inserted, although the way of activating can not only vary from society to society, from culture to culture but especially from individual to individual, then becoming a highly complex and indescribable phenomenon in scientific terms (DefinitionABC, 2017).
  • Double meaning: It is a literary figure in which a phrase can be understood in two ways, usually as a form of humor. Jokes are usually based on the double meaning, although they also use metaphors, common in poetry. This is also known as a pun (Wikipedia, 2016).

The nature of the game remains in adults

The essence of children's play, not only was a hobby, is maintained in adults through the play of words as in the albur and all the linguistic strategies involved in it (Metonymy, Homonymy, Paronymy, Polysemy, Calambur, Humor, Double meaning , witty words and more).

Playing brings many benefits in social interaction and in our physical and emotional health, it makes us: more creative, flexible, smiling, imaginative, innovative, emotional relationships are created, stimulates linguistic intelligence, makes us interpret different roles, activates our joy, affectivity, improvises, we feel empowered and freedom, but above all we experience pleasure and it activates our centers of dopamine.

Neurosciences and humor

Since we heard something funny, the acoustic vibratory waves that traveled through the air are captured and transformed or transduced by the external and internal ear and the temporal lobe is electrically stimulated. If we read something funny, the occipital lobe is stimulated and then we find meaning in the left hemisphere related to the language areas.

The information is analyzed by the Broca area in charge of process speech and subsequently passes to the Wernicke area, the one in charge of processing the linguistic structure of the words (Metonymy, Homonymy, Paronymy, Polysemy, Calambur), she is in charge of making sense of what has been said, both are connected by a bundle of nerve fibers called arcuate fascicle.

Each Cerebral hemisphere It fulfills different functions. The left side is the specialist in understanding language and finding logic, while the right hemisphere is creative and can find fun information, both communicate at the base level also by another group of neurons called hard body.

The double meaning divides our attention there are those who do not understand it and there are those who catch them in the air.

As a comic duo, the cerebral hemispheres play different roles in humor processing. The brain itself seems divided by puns. According to the study published in Laterality: Asymmetries of body, brain and cognition. The results suggest that the right and left hemispheres fulfill different tasks in the processing of these and that communication between the two is essential to finish the joke. In a study conducted by Professor Lori Buchanan of the University of Windsor in Ontario, it was found that: the left hemisphere is in charge of processing most of the linguistic aspects of the pun, while the right is launched a little later to reveal the double meaning. This interaction allows us to understand the joke, as a form of pun, because it completes the basic form of humor; the sum of expectation and congruence, results in laughter. In the double senses, where words acquire ambiguous meanings, the context of the phrase prepares us to interpret the word in a specific way, a process that takes place in the left hemisphere. Laughter is unleashed when, a little later, the right hemisphere gives us clues about the other unexpected meaning of the word, triggering what Buchanan qualifies as a surprise reinterpretation (Jacobson, 2016).

Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in London, found that the funniest and most universal jokes use the pun to create an absurd situation (The Happy Brain, 2010).

What happens in our brain since they tell us the joke until we laugh?

In order to understand it, we activate the 3 layers of the brain. Reptilian brain (responsible for basic survival functions such as breathing), limbic brain (responsible for regulating emotions) and neocortex (responsible for reasoning).

First, we listen or read the words. Immediately our sight or hearing receptors send the data to the brain.

We capture the information read or heard with the areas of the left hemisphere (Broca and Wernicke area) to understand the language and logic of their structures, and we realize in a first attempt, whether what is heard or read makes sense or not. At that time, he begins ordering the received data and tries to structure a logical end of the story.

The left hemisphere communicates with the right hemisphere and in particular with the limbic brain in which a pleasant emotion is activated in the face of the absurd. To understand that absurdity, the information returns to the left hemisphere to the areas involved in language processing.

These areas are essential to understand the coherence of what we receive at the beginning of the story and then detect the incongruity of the joke itself. In order to verify the imagined and the unexpected final result, we need to use short-term memory. It is a kind of neural network that stores our logical expectation of history while we receive the information that at a particular moment makes an absurd turn breaking our expectations. The logical and illogical are in time and we find that it is absurd, and the absurd is fun. We find it fun because our brain naturally has the so-called "central error announcer", located in the middle posterior area of ​​the frontal cortex. There the neurons are activated as soon as an action departs from the right thing (The happy brain, 2010).

If the brain detects errors, the reward system is rewarded and activated (Midbrain, ventral tegmental area, Accumbens core) that produces dopamine (hormone of pleasure or happiness) and that signal reaches the prefrontal cortex. Then the reward system is responsible for moving the body by stimulating the premotor cortex for laughter to occur.

All the processes to understand the joke, find it fun and laugh are synchronized very quickly.

Do men and women laugh alike at the pun?

Men and women process information differently. Comparing what happens in your brain to the same jokes allows you to know better the emotional component of the sense of humor. Women activate two more regions of the brain: that of the language areas and the one involved in short-term memory. Women generate more activity in the central switch of the reward system. The way to process information by the female brain achieves greater integration between knowledge and emotion, which produces a very high response to the pleasant. On the other hand, the male brain, not integrating the emotional component so much, expects a reward for the absurdity of the joke, whether funny or not. Wiseman's investigations conclude that they tell more jokes, but they enjoy humor more. (The happy brain, 2010).

Why not all brains laugh with puns?

It is assumed that ingenious words can start a laugh or a laugh, but that does not happen in all brains. If there is any structural or functional damage at the brain level in any of the areas involved in capturing and processing the, joke, ingenious words or an albur, they will not understand it and also if we are not part of the political, economic, spiritual or socio-cultural context where they express themselves, it will be materially impossible to understand their meaning.

The play of words or ingenious words have been present throughout our history, for example, the English playwright, poet and actor William Shakespeare was an expert on this:

  • It is better to be king of your silence than slave of your words.
  • Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some greatness is imposed and others greatness is great.
  • It is destiny that shuffles the cards, but we are the ones who play.
  • Words are full of falsehood or art; The look is the language of the heart.

As a final reflection

  • For the brain it is the same a play on words, an albur or any kind of ingenious words.
  • Playing with words (not exclusively with albur) keeps our brain healthy and increases brain plasticity.
  • Finding fun things or not is very personal and also depends on the associated emotions.
  • Creatively occupying any of the linguistic modalities to socialize and communicate with others allows us to create more emotional ties. Do not confuse this concept with using rudeness to offend or denigrate, as this generates the opposite effect.
  • Injuries in some area of ​​the brain can produce an inability to understand linguistic structures and consequently not understand: sayings, sapphires or texts of greater complexity. Even having greater dominance of one of the hemispheres could be that someone does not understand jokes or sapwood.
  • When we play with words, we laugh and this keeps us healthier: it prevents heart disease by accelerating our heart rate, we generate endorphins and dopamine bringing a healthier immune system as a benefit, lowering stress levels and its analgesic effect frees us from pain. It allows more air to enter our lungs and oxygenates the entire body. Against subtracts mental illnesses such as depression and anguish. It improves our social relationships and neutralizes negative emotions such as fear. Regulates blood pressure and cleanses our veins and arteries. Laughing is a pleasure and makes you healthier!

To learn more, do not miss this book by Juan Antonio Barrera


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Grammatics (2013) Definition of Paronymy, Accessed on April 16, 2017, online: //

Jacobson R. (2016) Neuroscience: The double meaning divides our attention, Inside the brain, Research and Science Magazine, December 2016, Number 483, Barcelona

Jiménez (1991) Signboards drawings and rude graphites of the Mexican Picardy, Posada Editorial, Mexico.

Punset E. (2013) How did the language come about ?, Networks - Ask Punset, accessed April 15, 2017, online: // as-surgio-language / 1912280 /

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