Stories with humor are beneficial to the brain and to cognitive development

Childhood is a time during which we learn a lot and cognitive development is being constantly stimulated when we are little. Stories with humor in them also have an important role in this development. 

Each new stimulus children receive makes them explore the world, their senses, and, therefore, learn and interact with their environment. Reading stories is a way to stimulate these learnings. 

In this article, we explained that reading stimulates the growth of white matter in the brain, which is a set of nervous fibers in the brain that help it to learn and function. 

The benefits of stories with humour for kids

Researchers Olufolake Orekoya, Edmund SS Chan and Maria PY Chik, all from Hong Kong Baptist University, wrote the article “Humor and Reading Motivation in Children: Does the Tickling Work?”. In this article, they explain how reading and, mainly, literature with elements of humor can be beneficial to children’s learning. 

They present a two-year investigation about learning and teaching children’s literature done by five universities with elementary school students. It reveals that most children prefer reading books that make them laugh

The results also showed that what makes children avid readers are books with funny stories. The study reported what were children’s preferences when it came to reading, which goes from funny stories to adventurous ones,  fantasy and others. 

Children are easily adaptable to the bond in humor and creativity, both of which help cognitive development. As children grow up and become more cognitively mature, they may appreciate different forms of humor present in the stories. 

Reading, humor and cognitive development

The article states that “humor appreciation is closely related to cognitive development”. “When a child is engaged in humour appreciation, he or she intends to finish a problem-solving exercise to identify and unfold the incongruity hidden beneath the humour stimuli.” (Zigler, Levine, & Gould, 1967)

“Literature confirms the benefits and significance of humour for school learning socially, cognitively, affectively and behaviorally since it facilitates playful learning environment, lessened learning anxiety, stimulated students’ learning motivation, and deepened teacher-student relationship (Davies & Apter, 1980).”

“When children read humourous texts, they engaged in a ‘cognitive play’, ‘where words and concepts are used in ways that are surprising, unusual, and incongruous, activating schemas with which they are not normally associated’ (Martin, 2007, p. 109; Shultz & Robillard, 1980).”

According to Rod A. Martin, reading as a cognitive activity possibly activates “positive emotion of mirth (i.e. enjoyment), leading to enhancement of creativity, memory and social virtues that include: sense of responsibility, helpfulness and generosity) (Martin, 2007).”  

Humor theories

John Morreall, who is a PhD in Philosophy and Emeritus Professor of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, evaluated three traditional theories regarding laughter and humor: the Theory of Superiority, the Theory of Relief and the Theory of Incongruity. Based on these theories, he put forward a new one which claims that humor is cognitive play

John explains that “not all laughter is about persons, and so there need be no comparison of persons”, as it was stated in the Theory of Superiority of humor. He says “we may be amused by a stage comedian doing a perfect impression of some movie star without comparing ourselves with that comedian or the movie star. And even if we do compare ourselves with persons about whom we are laughing, we need not judge ourselves superior to them. They may make us laugh by surprising us with unexpected skills that we lack.” 

“After two millennia in which the Superiority Theory was the only widely accepted account of laughter, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory emerged in the 18th century. According to the Relief Theory, laughter operates like a safety valve in a steam pipe, releasing built-up nervous energy.”

This theory, however, started to be questioned. The act of speaking and the elements of humor in said speech didn’t seem to require emotions. In addition, some experiences of fun also rely solely on the element of surprise. The Theory of Incongruity was one of the most widely accepted in the twentieth century, since it stated that “humorous amusement is a reaction to something that violates our mental patterns and expectations.” 

Reflections on the theories of humor

After considering the theories of humor mentioned above, professor John Morreall wrote that there are four insights. “First, humor is a cognitive phenomenon – it involves perceptions, thoughts, mental patterns, and expectations. Secondly, humor involves a change of cognitive state. Thirdly, that cognitive change is sudden. And fourthly, amusement is pleasurable.” 

To these four insights he added others: 

“ 1) Humor is a nonserious activity in which we suspend practical concern and concern about what is true. 

2) Humor is primarily a social experience.

3) Humor is a form of play in which laughter serves as a play signal. Coining the term shift for a sudden change, we can say that humor involves the enjoyment of cognitive shifts.”

Putting all these ideas together, he presented the following theory of humorous amusement: 

Laughter makes people experience a cognitive shift and “their playful disengagement and their pleasure are expressed in laughter, which signals to others that they can relax and enjoy the cognitive shift too.”

How humor affects the brain

Brian David Boyd, professor from The University of Auckland in New Zealand, explains that laughter, although it is often triggered by words, is in itself pre-verbal and non-verbal

According to an excerpt from his article, “laughter and sobbing are ‘the first two social vocalizations that children make’; unlike speech, they are relatively involuntary, socially contagious, and with a consistent emotional valence; like other primate social calls they do not require fine articulation but only an ’alternation of the presence and absence of vocal sounds, superimposed on relatively more stable mouth postures,’ and their motor activity depends on mid-brain and brain stem circuits rather than the higher speech centers.”

Training for the unexpected

This confident sharing of expectations that happens in verbal communication is essential for social play. This also happens in games and activities, so that there is as much room as possible for the unexpected. 

Shared expectations that allow for surprises that catch us off guard, that simulate risk and stimulate recovery, are the key not only to play of all kinds but also to humor. In jokes we are often primed for surprise, but despite our actively seeking to anticipate an unexpected resolution, the punch line still takes us unawares, but in a way that allows the tripping up of our expectations to be followed by a swift regaining of balance.”

Laughter brings us together

The article also says that “our very recognition that we share such expectations makes our amusement socially binding in the way that physical play, through  its dependence on the less novel expectations of ritualized behavior, also serves to unite. 

If a would-be joke does not take us by surprise, if, as we say, we see the punch line a mile off, we will not find it funny. On the other hand, springing a joke with insufficient preparation can also ruin it.

But if our expectation has been primed, if we know a joke is coming, and we still find the punch line takes us by surprise, it will be even funnier: it resembles exactly the relationship between the keen general expectation of play, and the acute particular surprises animals, including humans, especially enjoy in play.”

At last, in his article, professor Brian brings up a question asked by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett: “What advantage could Homo sapiens gain from laughing? Why would laughter and humor have evolved as behaviors that matter so much to us?”

His answer was the following: “Laughter, by signaling our pleasure in cognitive play, invites and encourages us to prepare playful surprises for one another. Playing socially with our expectations reinforces our sense of solidarity, our recognition of the huge body of expectations we share; it trains us to cope with and even seek out the unexpected that surrounds and can extend these expectations; and yet it can offer a first more or less playful warning to those who diverge from them in ways we reject.”

Written by Débora Nazário

Translated by Mariana Gruber


Now that we already know the role humor has in stories and children’s preferences for funny tales, here are some reading recommendations!

Truth and Tales, the app we developed, has many stories that are full of twists and humor! They are Teaching Stories, which you can learn more about here. The Teaching Stories usually make use of lots of humor in order to develop a certain level of preparedness to the unexpected as well as give the stories a special touch!

The Truth and Tales story called “The Child and the Dragon” presents several funny characters and dialogue, in addition to twists and turns the reader never sees coming!

Download the app and try reading, playing or listening to our stories! 

The importance of make-believe, lies and imagination in childhood

Have you ever been surprised by a kids story? A whimsical, creative narrative full of details and plot laden with almost unimaginable elements? The answer is probably yes. It’s very common for kids to tell stories in great detail to those who live with them. And to do so, we need to experience some lies so we can create stories.

Stories and their perspectives change according to kids’ ages, as they keep up with the little ones’ development. The ability to create these narratives changes and gains new shapes and layers. 

Childhood is a favourable time for the imagination because it is the phase of life in which we learn, observe everything and notice others as well as the world around us. When we are kids, we perceive and feel frustration, joy, sadness and several other feelings we don’t even know how to name. 

The questions that remain are: should these behaviors — which are quite common to kids’ daily routine — be encouraged? What is their importance to childhood? Can they contribute to the process of learning and becoming autonomous? We’ll talk about all of this and more down below! 

Make-believe as self-expression 

It’s nice to see in which moments the narratives full of imagination are constructed by children and to notice what makes them comfortable. This way, it is easier to understand what is the “message” they want to convey. Sometimes there is no message, instead being simply an expression of what they see and how they manage to externalize their perceptions

According to Deborah Moss, a neuropsychologist specialized in child behavior and a Master in development psychology, in an interview given to UOL’s Portal Bem Viver (freely translated to “Good Living Portal”), claimed that “children can use their imagination to create one or more playmates and conceive each one in very particular ways, in order to externalize their relationships, what they feel, or what they learn every day. These representations concern getting in contact with yourself. 

::Read Also: The benefits of rhymes when learning to read::

Making up dialogues: 

In many situations, kids repeat what they hear from adults. They give voice to objects and reproduce discourses they overhear. They use their imagination and create dialogues between these objects, make up situations and also end up finding solutions to conflicts they themselves created. 

This type of play is extremely positive and enriching to their vocabulary, it allows them to practice their speech and encourages their ability to handle conflicts, even if it’s all just pretend. 

Imaginary Friends: 

It’s common for kids to have imaginary friends that join them throughout their day-to-day activities. 

For many years, imaginary friends were associated with a lack of social skills, but that is a big mistake according to the opinion of emeritus professor Marjorie Taylor, from Oregon University—located in Eugene, Oregon, in the US. 

According to Marjorie, these friends can vary in terms of personality and level of connection to the kids’ routines. Some are characters from movies, real toys, their own image in the mirror, parts of the body, drawings and others, brought to life by their own imagination. Their period of existence is variable, lasting from a few days up to many years. 

The professor has stated imaginary friends can help kids handle emotional issues or fears. She has also discussed how kids who have imaginary friends present no disadvantages concerning social cognition, differently than what many believed years ago. 

In her Master’s thesis, “The creation of imaginary friends: a study with Brazilian children”, Natália Benincasa Velludo brings evidence that the “creation of imaginary friends isn’t associated with developmental shortfalls and can even be a predictor of more sophisticated skills, such as a more developed vocabulary, for example.” 

In other words, unlike what our culture preaches, kids who have imaginary friends don’t have attention problems or cognitive deficits, and they may present more robust vocabulary. 

Self-confidence development

By means of stories and their creativity, kids can create imaginary characters who are strong, brave, and can handle different situations. When the little ones are in contact with these characters, they may “mirror” these stories and overcome their own fears and anguishes with the help of this incentive. 

Psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe, author of the book The Genius of Natural Childhood: Secrets of Thriving Children, states that “the imagination is able to create visual images in the mind’s eye, which allows us to explore all kinds of images and ideas without being restricted by the boundaries of the physical world. That is how children start to develop problem-solving skills, coming up with new possibilities, new ways of seeing and being, which develop important critical thinking perceptions which will help them throughout their lives.”  

Kids and lies

Children lie, regardless of their upbringing or their parents’ example. Many argue that kids lie to defend themselves, to flee from a situation they don’t want to face or in order to get what they desire. Yes, that happens, but it’s not the only reason they do this.  The reasons kids lie go beyond that and are part of kids’ cognitive and language development and their notion of reality. 

There is evidence that children’s lying behavior is connected to executive functioning. According to the study Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children’s Lying Behavior published in 2008, executive functioning skills are first expressed at the end of early childhood and develop throughout its entirety, a time in which researchers have noticed an increase in the ability to tell lies. 

It was suggested that inhibitory control (the ability to suppress thought processes or interfering actions) and working memory (a system that retains and processes temporary information in the mind) can be linked directly to kids’ lies. When they lie, kids need to suppress the story of the transgression they intend to conceive while representing and expressing the false information that differs from reality. 

In order to sustain their lies, children have to inhibit thoughts and statements which are contrary to their story and would reveal their transgressions, thus storing the content of the lie in the memory. Therefore, in order to tell lies successfully, kids must be able to juggle conflicting alternatives in their minds (in other words, what they really did/thought and what they say they did/thought). 

Many lies told by kids have no apparent motive. In other words: there is no underlying goal to achieve something, escape from a situation or call out attention. They lie because that is part of the process of growing up. Kids aren’t familiar with the concept of morality and it is during childhood that they experiment things related to it for the first time. Lying is one of the ways children naturally find in order to experience these social concepts. It appears in different aspects at different childhood stages: 

2-4 year-olds

At this age, language skills are arising and kids still don’t know exactly where truth begins and ends. During this period, they are unable to keep the lies they tell. 

Younger kids also have a pretty unstable understanding of the difference between reality, daydreaming, desires and urges, fantasies and fears. 

In other words, when kids are confronted for having something they got without permission and they deny doing so, they can express their wish that they had not taken it by saying they didn’t take it, due to a language limitation. 

5-8 year-olds 

Between the ages of 5 and 8, children tell more lies in order to test what they can do, especially lies related to school – classes, homework, teachers and friends. Keeping lies may still be difficult, although they start to become more and more skilled at hiding them.  

According to pediatric psychiatrist Elizabth Berger, “the regulations and responsibilities present at this age are usually too much for kids. As a result, kids often lie in order to appease the forces that seem to demand more from their performances than what they can offer.” 

9-12 year-olds

Most kids this age are on the right path to establish an identity of being dedicated, trustworthy and mindful. However, they are also becoming more skilled at keeping lies and more sensitive to the repercussions of their actions, and may have strong feelings of guilt after lying

Direct and long conversations about honesty are definitely necessary, since there will be a few rare “little white lies” moments in which dishonesty is acceptable in order to be polite or to spare someone else’s feelings. 

How to deal with kids’ lies? 

Although lying is a normal part of kids’ development, parents and educators can give them support in three different ways, according to an article from Neuroscience

“First, avoid excessive or over-the-top punishments. In a study comparing a West African school that used punitive punishments (such as hitting with a stick, slapping, and pinching) and a school that used non-punitive reprimands (such as time outs or scolding), students at the school with punitive punishments were more likely to be effective liars. Children from families that place a strong emphasis on following the rules and not open dialogue also report lying more frequently.

Second, discuss emotional and moral scenarios with children. This “emotion coaching” supports children’s understanding of when lies are most harmful, how they affect others, and how they themselves might feel when they lie. (…)

Third, ensure the lie really is a lie. Very young children are prone to blend real life and imagination, while older children and adults frequently remember arguments differently to one another.”

Written by Débora Nazário and Luisa Scherer

Translated by Mariana Gruber