Brain Imaging Humor Neuroscience Psychology

Shyness and Humor Processing in Children

This blog post first appeared on on October 29, 2016.

Humor is a prototypical positive social human state. It acts as a social glue, facilitating the initiation and maintenance of social relationships. Humor could even serve as a tool for human mate selection, providing women with information about men’s mating quality beyond what meets the eye. I have already mentioned these characteristics of humor in humans in one of my previous posts, in which the main focus was on sex-differences.

In a subsequent publication, Jessica Black, Michelle Neely, Elizabeth Walter Shelly, Allan Reiss and I looked at additional factors besides sex that could influence humor processing. Again relying on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from 22 children ages 6-13, we examined how the children’s age, intelligence and temperament could possibly affect children’s ability to cognitively (“getting the joke”), and/or emotionally (“feeling amused by the joke”) process humor. In order to do so, children were shown a series of short movie clips taken from the TV show “America’s Funniest Home Videos” during fMRI scanning, and were psychologically assessed. For a comprehensive account of our findings, please check out another of my blogs available here.

In the present post, I would like to focus on one specific result of the second paper, namely the influence of temperament, and particularly shyness, on humor processing in children. Shy children are usually described as feeling uncomfortable when being in novel social surroundings. Such social discomfort may explain why shyness is characterized by decreased sociability, longer time needed to warming up to strangers, and having difficulties with making friends. Consequently, shy children may have fewer chances for acquiring social skills necessary for interacting with others in a positive way. This lack of social experience could eventually explain why shy children are more vulnerable to developing anxiety disorders, and are more likely to experience peer rejection and victimization.

In our study, we found that brain activity related to humor processing was weaker the higher children scored on shyness. Such negative relation between brain activity to humor and shyness was present in several different brain areas known to be involved in both cognitive (“getting the joke”) and emotional (“feeling amused by the joke”) humor processing. It therefore appears that shy children may have difficulties in understanding humor and consequently feel less positively stimulated by it.

The above-mentioned observation of difficulties during humor processing in shy children may be of potential clinical relevance.  There is growing evidence that mutual social interactions importantly involve positive emotions associated with reward-related experiences. It usually feels good to be with others, and this good feeling makes us to repeatedly search for social interactions. In some cases, however, this social reward mechanism appears disturbed, as for example in people having an avoidant attachment style (see my previous post for more information), or in shy children as described here. Knowing more about how the human brain processes positive social information, and under which circumstances such processing may be impaired, could provide important clues for the development of future prevention and intervention strategies in clinical settings.

Dr Pascal Vrticka is a social neuroscientist with strong ties to developmental & social psychology. His research focuses on the psychological, behavioural, biological, and brain basis of human social interaction, attachment and caregiving. Besides measuring neurobiological responses to different kinds of social versus non-social information in single participants using (functional) magnetic resonance imaging ([f]MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), Dr Vrticka most recently started to assess bio-behavioural synchrony in interacting pairs using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) hyperscanning. The main question thereby is how romantic partners and parents with their children get “in sync” when they solve problems together or talk to each other. Dr Vrticka furthermore relates the obtained individual and dyadic behavioural, biological, and brain measures to interindividual differences in relationship quality – particularly attachment and caregiving. In doing so, he refers to attachment theory that provides a suitable theoretical framework on how we initiate and maintain interpersonal relationships across the life span. With his research, Dr Vrticka is promoting a new area of investigation: the social neuroscience of human attachment.

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