Why humor is good for creativity

According to Psychology Today, while at Northwestern University, Karuna Subramaniam studied two groups of participants watch two different movies. One group watched a comedy, while the other watched a horror movie (The Shining). Immediately after, she gave both groups a word association puzzle to solve, and found that the group that watched the comedy were more creative solving the puzzle than the other group (we already know that negativity is bad for you). She confirmed her results using MRI equipment that showed increased activity in the area associated with creativity (the anterior cingulate cortex) in those people who watched the comedy.

In another study conducted at MIT, two groups of participants (professional designers and improv comedians) were asked to brainstorm ideas. Improv artists generated 20% more ideas than the designers (showing fluency), which was also 25% more creative (showing flexibility). It also found that using the games that improv artists use for warmup improved the creative output of the product designers in brainstorming sessions by 37%.

The scientific field of gelotology studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain, and researchers in this field found through EEG brain scans that humor and laughter are very complex cognitive functions that involve the entire brain. The left brain hemisphere "sets up" the joke, while the right one helps "getting" the joke.

Moving from psychology and neurology to sociology, a sense of humor (especially the kind that others get, when you laugh with them and not at them) can create friendships, and will bond and build a team, such that team creativity (as opposed to individual creativity) can grow.

But it doesn't end with humor. In come sarcasm.

Francesca Gino, Adam Galinsky, and Li Huang of Harvard University found that sarcasm can be a catalyst of creativity, in their study The highest form of intelligence: Sarcasm increases creativity for both expressers and recipients, that was published at the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in November 2015. Sarcasm is prevalent in organizations, and not necessarily for good purposes. Where trust is missing, especially in a newly formed group, introducing sarcasm increases conflict, and not necessarily creativity. However, when trust exists, both expressing sarcasm and receiving sarcasm increase creativity, without creating conflict. To be clear about the distinction between irony and sarcasm, the researched defined sarcasm as: "often used to humorously convey thinly veiled disapproval or scorn."

The reason sarcasm enhances creativity, according to Gino and her co-authors, is that to both create a sarcastic comment and to interpret the hidden meaning of it requires more creative thinking, and exercises the exact same parts of the brain that will later participate in creative idea generation.

3 simple and practical ways to use humor and sarcasm to increase creativity

  1. Use humor. The more humor you use, the more creative you are (just like the more you complain, the less creative you are...). And the more you use it, the better you will be at it...
  2. Use sarcasm appropriately. Sarcasm will have a positive impact on your creativity, but if you exercise it on someone who does not trust you--you will have a negative impact on them, and only create conflict. When among people you trust--use sarcasm freely. 
  3. Take improv classes. I took improv classes at the Dallas Comedy House. Improv is hard. Believe me. It has you thinking non-stop. You get on a stage, already occupied by someone else, and you try to figure out who she is, who you are, where you are, and what are you both doing here. You both build on each other's cues. At the end of a 3-hour training session I was sweating. Literally. But even if you don't take improv classes, there are books of exercises you can use to develop those skills. For yourself, and for a team.