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Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, by Scott Weems, Basic Books, RRP£17.99, 288 pages
It’s often said that the best way to kill a joke is by analysing it. But, according to Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist, there are good reasons for thinking seriously about when we laugh and why. Humour, he argues, provides a vital means to “deal with disagreements in our complex brains” – and can improve both our mental and physical wellbeing.
Although Weems’ ideas may not be groundbreaking, he marshals an impressive range of studies and statistics to make his point. He shows that we process jokes in much the same way that we tackle problems, getting a rush of dopamine when we succeed. Laughter, meanwhile, brings all sorts of benefits. Research suggests it can help us to learn and to increase our pain tolerance. Best of all, 100 laughs are apparently equivalent to 15 minutes on an exercise bike.
Weems says at the outset that his aim is not to write a funny book, and his rather earnest tone means that Ha! certainly isn’t a laugh a minute. Nonetheless, it makes a compelling case for seeing the comic side of life.