This Is Your Brain on Puns

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iStock

Q. What do vegan zombies eat?
A. Graaaaaaaaaaaaains. 

If that joke made you groan like the undead, thank your bilateral processing abilities. Researchers studying the neuroscience of puns say that understanding them, even the bad ones, requires cooperation between both sides of the brain. They published their research in the journal Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition. 

Humor has a reputation for being transgressive, but all that boundary-pushing is only possible thanks to a system of internal rules. From knock-knock jokes to digs on someone’s mama, each class has its own standardized scaffolding. Some philosophers argue that humor itself depends on a formula: taking something familiar and giving it an unexpected—but not upsetting—twist. 

This “benign violation” setup is also at the heart of the pun. The joke up top takes a reader’s familiarity with the cliché of the lurching, brain-craving zombie, then uses a rhyme to add a surprising shade of meaning. Yes, we know that dissecting jokes isn’t funny. We’re done now.

Neuroscientists at the University of Windsor wondered how our brains would parse the two-step process of understanding puns. They were specifically curious to find out how the work was divvied up between the brain’s left and right hemispheres. 

To find out, they brought volunteers into the lab and sat them down in front of computers, which proceeded to display a series of easy, cheesy puns. (Ex.: “They replaced the baseball with an orange to add some zest to the game.”) Some of the puns showed up on the left side of the screen, where they would be processed first by the right side of the brain. The rest showed up on the right. The participants were timed to see how long it took them to get each joke, such as it was. 

The results showed that participants were quicker on the uptake when their puns appeared on the right side of the screen—that is, starting with the left side of their brains. This makes sense, co-author Lori Buchanan told Scientific American: “The left hemisphere is the linguistic hemisphere, so it’s the one that processes most of the language aspects of the pun, with the right hemisphere kicking in a bit later.” 

Understanding a pun, they found, requires input from both hemispheres. The left side introduces the standard, linguistic part of the sentence or joke—essentially setting up the setup—while the right side analyzes the punchline’s double meaning. 

That's probably more thought than most puns deserve. 

5 Painless Facts About Operation

Hasbro via Amazon
Hasbro via Amazon

For more than 50 years, players have had fun practicing medicine without a license in Operation. The popular tabletop game tasks amateur surgeons with extracting game pieces—foreign objects and body parts—using tweezers without slipping and activating a buzzer that lights up the patient’s nose. (This procedure, which looks to deprive the man of all his important innards, is seemingly performed without anesthesia.) Check out some facts on the game’s history, including its more recent ailments and how it inspired a real-life operation.

1. Operation started as a college project.

John Spinello was an industrial design student at the University of Illinois in the early 1960s. In class one day, he was instructed by his professor to design a game or toy. Remembering an ill-advised moment when he had stuck his finger into a light socket as a child, Spinello came up with a box that had a mild electrical current created by one positive and one negative plate a quarter-inch apart. When players tried to guide a probe through the box’s grooves, they had to be careful not to touch the sides. If they did, the probe would complete the circuit and they’d activate a buzzer.

The game was a hit with Spinello’s fellow students, and Spinello decided to show it to his godfather, Sam Cottone, who worked at a toy design firm named Marvin Glass and Associates. Marvin Glass loved the game and paid Spinello $500 (the equivalent of a little more than $4000 today) for the rights, as well as a promise of a job upon his graduation in 1965. Spinello got the money but no job—not right away, anyway. He finally joined at the company in 1976.

2. Operation was originally named Death Valley.

Spinello had created an intriguing idea for a buzzer-based game, but initially, there was no clear premise. Cottone suggested the box and probe take on a desert theme, where players would extract water from holes in the ground. The working title was Death Valley. When Milton Bradley bought the game rights from Marvin Glass and Associates, one of their designers, Jim O’Connor, suggested they switch from a probe to a pair of tweezers in order to actually extract small items from the holes. The setting was changed from a desert to an operating theater, and Operation was released in 1965.

3. Cavity Sam got a new diagnosis in 2004.

For decades, the various ailments of Cavity Sam—a funny bone, a broken heart, etc.—remained unchanged. In 2004, Hasbro introduced the first addition to his laundry list of complaints with a diagnosis of Brain Freeze, represented by an ice cream cone waiting for extraction from his head. Fans of the game were able to vote online for Sam's first new ailment: Brain Freeze beat out Growling Stomach and Tennis Elbow with 54 percent of the vote. Later versions have added Burp Bubbles and flatulent sound effects for an ailment dubbed Toxic Gas. Hasbro has also offered licensed versions of the game, including boards based on the Toy Story and Shrek franchises.

4. The inventor of Operation didn’t make any money off Operation.

In 2014, word circulated that Spinello was in need of oral surgery that would cost around $25,000. Because he had sold the rights to Operation for just $500, he had not received any royalties from sales of the game. Fortunately, a round of crowdfunding allowed him to get the procedure he needed. Hasbro, which bought Milton Bradley, also donated to the effort by buying Spinello’s original prototype.

5. Operation inspired a real-life operation that has helped thousands of people.

Surgeon Andrew Goldstone was a fan of Operation as a child. When he got older, he took the game’s premise to heart. Goldstone noticed that thyroid surgeries were risky due to the thyroid’s proximity to the nerves of the vocal cords. A small slip could damage the cords, causing hoarseness or airway obstruction. Goldstone thought surgeons should have a buzzer similar to the one in the game that alerted them when they got too close. He applied an electrode to the airway tube used during general anesthesia. If a surgeon touched the nerves of the vocal cords with a probe, a signal would pass to the electrode and a buzzer would sound. Goldstone sold the technology back in 1991. It’s been used in thousands of thyroid surgeries since. Unfortunately, the patient’s nose does not light up.

You Can Pay to Cuddle Cows at This New York Farm

Михаил Руденко/iStock via Getty Images
Михаил Руденко/iStock via Getty Images

Cuddling offers proven health benefits: Snuggling up with something (or someone) warm releases "cuddle hormones" that reduce stress and boost your overall sense of wellbeing. But you don't necessarily need to find a human partner to reap these rewards. At the Mountain Horse Farm in Naples, New York, you can pay $75 to cuddle with cows for an hour, ABC News reports.

The cattle at this farm and bed and breakfast have been available for guests to hug since last spring. Originally, the farm only offered horse therapy, and then owner Suzanne Vullers realized that cows had something to contribute as well. Unlike horses, cows spend a lot of their days lying down. Their gentle, relaxed nature makes them the perfect cuddle companions.


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For $75, up to two people can hang out in the pasture for an hour and cuddle any cows that are willing. The Mountain Horse Farm emphasizes that it's not a petting zoo, and cows get to choose whether or not they want to get up close and personal with strangers. Visitors are shown how to best approach and interact with the cows before their snuggle session begins.

Offering unique experiences with livestock is an increasingly popular way for farms to make extra cash. Goat yoga has become mainstream around the U.S., and some farms have even organized alpaca dance classes.

To sign up for a cow-cuddling experience, you can book a session online.


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[h/t ABC News]

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