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Free Thinking: No Laughing Matter


Martin Shovel of CreativityWorks encourages trainers to use humour as a tool for enhancing learning; read on for some practical tips.

When I was at school, teachers regarded humour in the classroom with a mixture of distrust, alarm and disdain – a subversive influence which had the power to undermine their authority and hijack the attention of their pupils. It was no more a part of serious learning than a main course of sweets and chocolate would be part of a healthy meal.

Nowadays, fortunately, attitudes are changing because the more we study humour, the more we begin to appreciate the essential role it plays in our lives. The health benefits of laughter – humour's physiological expression are well known. It can relax us, it's good for our hearts (recent research suggests it can even lower our chances of having a heart attack), it can also increase our tolerance of pain and strengthen our immune system.

There even appears to be a specific part of the brain associated with humour and it’s the same part that we associate with creative thinking. Studies show that people with damage to the front part of the right side of the brain (the right frontal lobe) experience severe difficulties in appreciating humour.

When it comes to jokes and cartoons, they laugh less, or not at all, compared to people with undamaged right frontal lobes. In tests, their unsuccessful efforts to match cartoons and possible captions in order of funniness and relevance indicate that although they are still able to recognise the importance of the form of a joke, they struggle when it comes to making sense of its content.

But why should losing the ability to appreciate and respond appropriately to humour matter? Well, in addition to being the place where humour is located, the right frontal lobe appears to have the unique ability to integrate what we think with what we feel.

This ability to bring together thinking and feeling is crucial to the development of our personality and sense of who we are. So this area of the brain could be said to be the site of our essential self. The famous case of Phineas Gage illustrates this point rather well.

Phineas Gage was a nineteenth century construction foreman working on the US railroad. He was horribly injured when a mistimed explosion blew an iron rod right through his skull. Incredibly, despite losing a huge chunk of his frontal lobe, Gage survived and lived for another twelve years. At first it seemed as though he'd made a miraculous recovery because his memory was intact, and his speech and motor skills were unaffected – but he was a changed man.

Before his injury, people had regarded him as hard working, responsible, and popular. But the accident transformed him into an entirely different and unrecognisable person; lewd, crude, disrespectful, feckless and profane. He eventually lost his job because his employers and fellow workers concurred with his friends and acquaintances that “Gage is no longer Gage.”

So it would seem that humour is central to who we are. It's also an essential social lubricant – society would fall apart without it. My teachers were right to recognise its subversive power but wrong not to connect that power to the source of our creativity.

Like creativity, humour depends on a number of high level thought processes working together. To appreciate humour you have to maintain the balance between an overall perspective and attention to detail; you have to be able to quickly revise what you think in the light of new understanding; you have to be able to appreciate the metaphorical and associative potential of words; you have to be able to look at a situation in different ways or from different perspectives; and you have to be able to think both in images and abstractly. That’s quite a work-out!

Humour often results in laughter and we know now that laughter puts our brains in the mood for learning. Even online learning has been shown to benefit from the addition of jokes and cartoons. They can turn a learning experience that's often seen as sterile and remote into something personal and inviting. So, I hear you ask, how can we introduce more humour into our training and learning? After all, we're not all professional comedians or cartoonists!

Well, the good news is that according to research carried out by Professor Robert Provine, we don't have to be. Provine concluded that less than twenty per cent of laughter was in response to anything resembling a joke, and that people were thirty times more likely to laugh in groups than when alone. So it's probably enough just to stand in front of a group and attempt to draw something!

Ironically, the fact that your drawing isn't perfect turns out to be an advantage. People will laugh, and infect each other with laughter, as they try to work out what you're drawing is supposed to be. Your willingness to expose yourself to their mirth will give them the courage and motivation to share their vulnerability with you and each other. The whole experience will raise the emotional warmth in the room, lower anxiety and prepare the way for learning.

Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting

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