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Show me the words: a scientific look at why visual humour works

Show me the words: a scientific look at why visual humour works

Here's the scientific lowdown on why visual humour is so important for learning and retaining words.

When something is funny it’s much more memorable. From an educational standpoint, the solution is obvious: use humour and images to help children learn better.

Have you ever noticed how good your child is at reciting lines from their favourite cartoon, and wished they had the same capacity for learning their schoolwork? Actually, they do. The key is that cartoons are funny and research shows that this is an exquisite recipe for memorability.

Edu-comedy pioneers Robert Kaplan and Gregory Pascoe were among the first scholars to make a link between humour and learning. In a groundbreaking study (1977), they found that funny lecture content significantly increased recall for their students, and a number of later studies came to the same conclusion (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011). There are two main reasons behind this: the psychological one and the neuroscientific one.

The science of humour

The psychological reason as to why humour aids retention has been investigated by various scientists. Most of the recent studies have sprung from Berlyne’s theory (1960), in which he proposed that humour is a two-phase process where the stimulus contains an incongruent element or an inconsistency which needs to be recognized and reinterpreted by the receiver of the joke. The humour, accompanied by the laughter or smile, corresponds to the reanalysis of the odd element.

It was hypothesised that the extra processing effort to capture the inconsistency and reanalyse it allowed for the content to be elaborated on more, thus engraving it in long-term memory more easily than non-humorous stimuli, which is processed efficiently and just as rapidly forgotten. This hypothesis was proven true in various experiments (Schmidt & Williams, 2001; Schmidt, 2002; Wanzer et al., 2010).

The neuroscientific reason behind humour’s educational effectiveness lies in the chemicals released by the brain when we encounter a humorous situation, or, more specifically, when we laugh. A study by neuroscientist Roy Wise (2004) found that humour activates the brain’s dopamine reward system (you know, like chocolate or winning a competition), and that this pleasure chemical is crucial both for motivation and long-term memory. It is also a key factor for habit formation, for something that makes us feel good will trigger the desire to do it again. In other words, not only does humour make children learn, it makes them want to learn.

It has also been proven to build confidence and relieve stress and, if that wasn’t enough, social laughter (laughing accompanied by others) has been shown to support long-term relationships in humans. In fact, our brain releases opioids (the human-made, naturally-occurring ones) after having a good laugh with our pals. These chemicals facilitate social bonding and communication, as well as promote a positive mood and calmness, while reducing tension and anxiety-related behaviours (Manninen et al 2017).

All of this has exciting implications for vocabulary learning. As well as making language acquisition more fun and engaging, pairing words with funny, relatable images means that children learn them much more quickly. And best of all, they get a healthy dose of dopamine.


Banas, J., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D. and Liu, S. (2011) A Review of Humor in EducationalSettings: Four Decades of Research. Communication Education, 60(1), 115-144.

Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kaplan, R. and Pascoe, G. (1977). Humorous Lectures and Humorous Examples: Some Effects upon Comprehension and Retention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(1), 61-65.

Manninen, S., Tuominen, L., Dunbar, R., Karjalainen, T., Hirvonen, J., Arponen, E., Hari, R., Jääskeläinen, I., Sams, M., Nummenmaa, L. (2017). Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(25), 6125-6131.

Minchew, S. And Hopper, P. (2008) Techniques for Using Humour and Fun in the Language Arts Classroom. The Clearing House. 81, (5), pp. 167-80.

Schmidt, S. (2002) The humour effect: Differential processing and privileged retrieval. Memory, 10(2), 127-138, DOI: 10.1080/09658210143000263

Schmidt, S., Williams, A. (2001). Memory for humorous cartoons. Memory & Cognition, 29(2), 305-311.

Wanzer, M., Frymier, A. & Irwin, J. (2010) An Explanation of the Relationship between Instructor Humor and Student Learning: Instructional Humor Processing Theory. Communication Education, 59(1), 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/03634520903367238

Wise, R. (2004) Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 5, pp. 483-494.