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Humor processing in children: Influence of temperament, age and IQ

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Vrticka, P., Black, J. M., Neely, M., Walter Shelly, E., & Reiss, A. L. (2013). Humor processing in children: Influence of temperament, age and IQ. Neuropsychologia, 51(13), 2799-2811. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.09.028.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-001A-1A24-D
Emerging evidence from fMRI studies suggests that humor processing is a specific social cognitive–affective human function that comprises two stages. The first stage (cognitive humor component) involves the detection and resolution of incongruity, and is associated with activity in temporo-occipito-parietal brain areas. The second stage (emotional humor component) comprises positive feelings related to mirth/reward, and is linked with reward-related activity in mesocorticolimbic circuits.

In healthy adults, humor processing was shown to be moderated by temperament traits like intro-/extraversion, neuroticism, or social anxiety, representing risk factors for psychopathology. However, comparable data from early developmental stages is crucially lacking. Here, we report for the first time data from 22 children (ages 6 to 13) revealing an influence of temperament on humor processing. Specifically, we assessed the effects of Emotionality, Shyness, and Sociability, which are analogous to neuroticism, behavioral inhibition/fear and extraversion in adults. We found Emotionality to be positively, but Shyness negatively associated with brain activity linked with both cognitive and emotional humor components. In addition, Shyness and Sociability were positively related to activity in the periaqueductal gray region during humor processing. These findings are of potential clinical relevance regarding the early detection of childhood psychopathology.

Previous data on humor processing in both adults and children furthermore suggest that intelligence (IQ) supports incongruity detection and resolution, whereas mirth and associated brain activity diminishes with increasing age. Here, we found that increasing age and IQ were linked with stronger activity to humor in brain areas implicated in the cognitive component of humor. Such data suggest that humor processing undergoes developmental changes and is moderated by higher IQ scores, both factors likely improving incongruity detection and resolution.