In Heaven, they tell jokes; In Hell they explain them.” (Argentinian proverb)

For most of us, when we have a “problem,” we may get intently serious about it, and may resent anyone who says anything humorous about it. I’ve watched a lot of therapy sessions by now, with people of many orientations. What I notice is that most therapy, and most therapists are VERY serious in their sessions. (First people get serious, then they get dead serious, and then they just get dead.)

However, Virginia Satir, one of the greatest therapists who ever lived, used a LOT of humor in her sessions. Besides being enjoyable, the mental events involved in humor may be exactly what we need in order to see our limitation in a different way, and begin to take steps to resolve it. Let’s explore this further.

In every joke or cartoon, there is a “set-up” in which an ordinary and easily understood narrative is created, along with a certain meaning. Then the “punch line” completely changes this, and our response is to smile or laugh as we embrace a new — and usually unexpected — meaning.

Here is my current favorite example:
What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?

Most of us immediately begin to consider the possible accolades, and which we’d most like to have said of us: “He was a great guy, she was so generous and kind, he was sensitive and empathic, she contributed to the neighborhood, etc.”

So the answer takes us by surprise: “Look! He’s moving!

What makes this joke funny is that we begin with the assumption that we have actually died. But when we hear the punch line, our images, understanding, and meaning change completely; the implication of “moving” means that you are alive, replacing the presupposition that you are dead.

Every joke, and every other kind of humor involves some kind of shift in perspective that changes your images; when your images change, often your understandings and meanings also change. This is exactly the kind of change that occurs when someone resolves a problem, whether it is a personal one, or one in science or art.

Often therapists talk about the usefulness of “reframing” in changing someone’s understanding, as if it were a single process. In fact, there are at least 17 distinctly different processes that have been described using the word “reframing.” (1)

What is really interesting is that these 17+ processes are exactly the same processes that occur in both humor and creative inspiration and discovery. In short:

Reframing = Humor = Creativity

We also know a little about what goes on neurologically when this process occurs. It has been known for some time that left frontal lobe damage often results in depression (and very little laughter). Right frontal lobe damage often results in either an inability to appreciate humor, or in humor that is thought to be strange or inappropriate by normal people. Evidently humor requires — and activates — both frontal lobes functioning together simultaneously. (If you want to explore this further, google “frontal lobe damage and depression” (or humor) and you can find plenty to read about this.)

A fascinating series of experiments sheds light on how humor affects the brain’s functioning. When horizontal moving lines are presented to the left visual field (processed by the right hemisphere), and vertical moving lines are presented to the right visual field (processed by the left hemisphere) subjects report seeing either vertical stripes or horizontal stripes, but only very rarely both (a “crosshatch” of intersecting lines). This is called “binocular rivalry” — meaning only one image makes it to our awareness at a time, and the other is not consciously noticed. The image we see tends to switch back and forth between the two hemispheres roughly twice per second. So we go back and forth between seeing the vertical lines and the horizontal ones. Interestingly, researchers in Australia have found that people with bipolar disorder took up to 10 times longer than normal people to switch from one hemisphere to the other. (2)

As this lab was carrying out research with a subject, someone cracked a joke, and the subject saw a crosshatch that persisted for some time. Following up on this surprise discovery, they found that laughing integrates the functioning of the two hemispheres, eliminating binocular rivalry for up to half an hour. (3)

Given the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that a recent article from the New York Times reports that humor results in significantly greater creative problem-solving. (4)

In Provocative Change Works, humor — about what the client thinks is very serious — is a major aspect of the method, stimulating both our own brain and the person we are talking to, to think in different ways, providing a variety of different exits on the “one track mind” problem superhighway.

So if you want to use both hemispheres of your brain to solve a problem, ask someone else to tell you some good jokes, think of several of your own favorites, or just put yourself back into a time when you were helpless with laughter. Get a good laugh going to activate and balance your hemispheres, and then think about the “problem.” Reboot your laughter at least every 20 minutes or so—and more often if you really want to have a good time.


(1) For a free handout describing these reframing patterns in summary form, and a short video example, check out Using Reframing Patterns Recursively. For more in-depth learning and examples of the different patterns of refaming, read my book Six Blind Elephants, which is all about how we create meaning using these patterns of thinking.




Have a few laughs right now! Click to watch this funny 6+ min excerpt of Nick Kemp doing an interview at last summer’s AMT.