Old Features

Child’s play

Jan. 14, 2011, 1:20 a.m.

How do nature and nurture influence humor development in adolescents?

(ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

Stanford School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital are conducting studies on how the neural pathways that encode humor develop in children’s brains, while also researching the relation between the development of humor and of brain functions.

The study is headed by Allan Reiss. M.D., who works at the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research (CIBSR). Michelle Neely ’11 is a research assistant for The Children’s Humor Study at CIBSR and is currently writing her senior thesis on the groundbreaking research.

“Humor has always been an interest for me,” Neely explained. “It’s really a powerful instrument: humor is related to resilience, serves as a social lubricant, helps people cope with problems and promotes social bonding.”

The focus of the study is how environmental factors influence a developing child’s humor.

“As far as we are aware, this is the first study of its kind that looks at neural development in typically developing children and its relation to the maturation of a sense of humor,” Neely said. “What we want to illuminate is the neural network that is implicated in the detection and appreciation of humor and how, if at all, that differs between genders; how, if it at all, it is different from that found in adults; and how different personal attributes of interest–like temperament, intelligence, resilience–influence a child’s appreciation of humor.”

Before the study began, researchers recruited boy/girl sibling pairs within two and a half years of age and boy/girl fraternal twins, all between the ages of 6 and 12. The Children’s Humor Study posted flyers in locations around the Peninsula, including Whole Foods Market and various libraries, and even promoted the study using a radio interview with Dr. Reiss, which was picked up by a local television news broadcast.

“We got a great response from the radio interview,” Neely said, “and we’re now in the process of scheduling in families.”

The study requires the brother/sister sibling pairs to watch and respond to a series of short film clips while in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Well before the children are placed inside the equipment, they practice in an MRI simulator, where they learn the importance of staying still throughout the protocol.

Inside the MRI, the children rate whether or not they “like” each video. Meanwhile, their brains are being scanned with magnetic resonance imagining by researchers in the next room. Post-scan, the children provide more nuanced ratings on how funny and enjoyable they found the videos, on a scale of one to eight.

“Prior to the current study, we had age-matched controls watch hundreds of video clips, some from America’s Funniest Home Videos and others from different Internet sources, but with the same home-quality feel,” Neely described. “By comparing reactions to funny clips to reactions to clips that are rewarding but not funny, we hope to parse out specific components of the response to humor, in comparison to more general reward activation.”

The images and scans are brought back to the lab for post-processing and data compilation. So far, the scans have been completed on a total of 10 children.

“Our ‘N’ is still pretty small,” Neely admitted. “We are seeing brain activation, but not enough to publish our findings.”

The Children’s Humor Study hopes to involve another 15 sibling pairs in the study in the hope of comprehending how the detection and appreciation of humor develops over a lifetime, how it differs between genders and how it relates to childhood temperament and resilience.

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