Are women easier to please than men? It may be true for jokes. Researchers have discovered that humor activates the reward system in women's brains more than it does in men's.
Men and women behave differently when it comes to humor. Women seem to laugh a little louder at parties and tend to think a sense of humor is more important in a potential mate than physical appearance is. Researchers have been looking for a neurological basis for this but have been unsuccessful. In 2003, Stanford University neuroscientist Allan Reiss found that the reward center in people's brains activates when they read funny cartoons. But does that part of the brain respond differently in men compared to women?
To find out, Reiss and colleagues put 10 men and 10 women into a magnetic resonance imager. The researchers asked a separate group of volunteers to rate 130 captioned cartoons on a funniness scale and presented the 30 funniest and 40 least funny ones to the subjects in the scanner. The scanned subjects also rated how funny they thought each cartoon was. In response to the funny cartoons, both genders experienced similar activity in the parts of brains that process language and semantics. But the area that handles analytical processing such as working memory or abstract thought worked harder in women, suggesting the gals took a more critical approach to the cartoons. The reward system also lit up significantly more in women than in men, even with cartoons that hit the same high point on the funny scale, and men's reward system dipped lower when disappointed with duds.
Reiss says this might mean that men expect the cartoons to be funny and are somewhat blase about the punchlines when they come. Women, on the other hand, don't initially expect the images to induce a chuckle, thinking "it's not funny until it's proven funny," and therefore derive more pleasure from entertaining punchlines. Reiss says that learning how women process emotional stimuli, such as humor, might help researchers understand why women are more prone to depression.
Neuroscientist Vinod Goel of the University of Toronto, Canada, says the "tantalizing" results are the first to reveal a neurological difference between the sexes in response to humor. There are a variety of ways to interpret the findings, says neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the more politically incorrect being that women are more easily entertained than men. Another is that women find humor more important in behavior than men do, consistent with ideas that humor evolved differently between the sexes as a mating strategy--men act the comics and women respond by laughing at them. Er, with them.