Pun-intended consequences

I’ll be honest – I don’t really know why we scientists are attracted to puns. Maybe it’s more socially acceptable than some of the jokes we know, maybe it’s because we want to get a rise out of people by making them groan, but whatever it is, there’s something about earning a Ph.D. that turns everyone, regardless of race or gender, into the comedic equivalent of our dads. But what is it about puns that causes a rise out of people?

In the literature review of their research, much of the humor in puns (some of you put the air quotes around humor – I can safely put money on that) come mostly from wordplay, which includes plays on spelling, pronunciation, and multiple definitions. This, then, causes the groan-inducing punchline. Note Chemistry Cat in the featured image credit – the punchline is “I’m in my element,” which plays off the idea of chemistry despite the fact that “I’m in my element” is a metaphor for being in a situation where one can leverage their expertise. And now that I’ve explained it, it’s no longer funny, and some of you are probably thankful for that.

If you’ve clicked the link or looked ahead to the Featured Article, you’ll notice the word ‘hemispheric,’ so you’re thinking that puns are going to play on one side, or the other, or even both. In this case, it’s going to play on both sides of the brain since puns are based on ambiguity. So once a pun gets into your head, your brain is essentially scrambling for the meaning, which is based on the idea of salience, which has to do with (among other things), how familiar you are with it. For you more-scholarly (less-casual, I guess) types, if you want to read more, hit up your university library for Rachel Giora’s work on salience. So why study puns, apart from there being “very few pun studies in the psychological literature” according to McHugh and Buchanan? They assert that this study uses puns to examine the “interaction between dominance and context in hemispheric processing.” In other words, what part of your brain is in control when you see this?

Author unknown

(I suspect that for some of you, it’s your sensorimotor functions that are priming you to pick up the nearest blunt object)

The authors ran a series of experiments on about 200 volunteers (man, I hope they got compensation) to see how the brain’s hemispheres interact with puns. There’s a lot of procedure specifics that we can skip over if I’m trying to keep this within less than 1000 words, but the gist of it included word association in some way, or even nonsense words. I’ll use their example from their first experiment to illustrate:

“My advanced geometry class is full of SQUARES.”

Public Domain (Author: LiveLaughLove)

A participant gets three choices: “triangles”, “nerds”, or “strings”. Each choice means something, based on the authors’ set of stimuli for the experiment. When the authors set up the experiment, they used an analysis of how often words occur near each other. The first choice is a ‘high co-occurrence’ choice because they’re the most similar and likely the most familiar in terms of being associated with each other (they’re shapes, after all), so it’s probably the most salient, going back to the vocab we picked up earlier. The second choice is a ‘low co-occurrence’ choice since you’re not likely to run into these words in the same context. You may also have to be a little hip on the lingo to associate ‘SQUARES’ with ‘nerds’, but to be fair, when’s the last time you made that distinction? Finally, ‘strings’ just has little, if anything, to do with squares. Maybe mathematics and string theory, but anyway.

What did they find? Unsurprisingly, people chose the high co-occurrence choice faster than the low co-occurrence choice (so they missed the pun), but bear in mind that this took place in a matter of milliseconds, so there’s room enough to get the pun and react internally. The second experiment showed that pun processing was heavily in the left hemisphere, which is often where language is processed. The interaction between hemisphere and high/low co-occurrence is almost (but not) statistically significant, so the side of the brain may not have a large impact on whether you pick the most familiar word, you’re going to do it anyway. Another experiment supported something that the authors suspected – both sides of the brain are in play when thinking about what pun just hit you. Some part of your brain went for the obvious (high co-occurrence) choice, the other part must have gone for the less-obvious (low co-occurrence) choice, and then you realize that you’ve expended brain power on something so stupid.

Public Domain (Author: mintchipdesigns)

That‘s where the groaning comes from.

Featured Article: McHugh T, Buchanan L. (2016) Pun processing from a psycholinguistic perspective: Introducing the Model of Psycholinguistic Hemispheric Incongruity Laughter (M.PHIL). Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain, and Cognition, 21:4-6, 455-483. DOI: 10.1080/1357650X.2016.1146292.

Featured Image Credit: Unknown author


  1. I’m a sucker for puns, I mean, most don’t even have to be that good ’cause I’ll probably laugh at it anyway 😛 Though I would be lying if I said I understood all that was explained in this post, I still enjoyed it and found it very insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like puns. Science puns are cool in that they get people thinking about science…even if for a fraction of a second. I’m not a fan of science, but science based puns are fun!

    Liked by 1 person

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