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Unraveling the Mystery of Humorlessness: The Neural Correlates of Gelotophobics
Some people are known as “conversation killers” among friends. When others are exchanging banter, they may feel rather uncomfortable, or even worry about being laughed at. People who have an excessive fear of being laughed at are referred to as ‘gelotophobics.’ Whereas most of us experience mirth upon hearing a good joke, gelotophobics are often unable to appreciate the humor. In Taiwan, such people are referred to as jiehai, “those who ruin the high spirits both in themselves and others easily and immediately.”
Research conducted by Yu-Chen Chan, an assistant professor at the Institute of Learning Sciences, NTHU, has found that the dorsal pathways in the brain, which are associated with cognitive control, are more active for gelotophobics (those who are afraid of being laughed at) than for non-gelotophobics. She also found that the ventral pathways, which are related to emotions, are less active in gelotophobics. When comprehending jokes, they may tend to exert more cognitive control and emotional repression, making it difficult to experience amusement. Thus, gelotophobics may be regarded as lacking a sense of humor or even as “party poopers.” Fortunately, according to Chan, training can help most gelotophobics learn to comprehend and enjoy the humor in jokes.
Based on cognitive neuroscience, the study was the first in the world to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the neural correlates of responses to hostile and non-hostile jokes in gelotophobics and non-gelotophobics. The results were recently published in Scientific Reports, an international journal of the Nature Publishing Group.
In her research, Chan found that when gelotophobics read hostile jokes, the dorsal corticostriatal system of the brain was more active than when non-gelotophobics read the same jokes. Such increased neural activity appears to reflect the brain’s efforts to determine whether the individual is being laughed at by others. At the same time, such people exhibit decreased ventral mesocorticolimbic system (MCL) activation than non-gelotophobics do, apparently reflecting that they are less able to experience amusement from appreciating jokes (Figure 1).

Figure1. For gelotophobics, the dorsal pathways (e.g., dlPFC) in their brain, which are associated with cognitive control, are more active in comparison with non-gelotophobics, and their ventral pathways (e.g., MCL), which are related to emotions, are less active. When comprehending jokes, gelotophobics may tend towards cognitive control and emotional repression, making it difficult to experience amusement.
Studies conducted worldwide have found that mild gelotophobics constitute between 2% to 15% of the total population in each country (Proyer et al., 2009), and that the ratio is relatively higher in the UK and Asia (cf. Platt, BBC news). “Since my childhood, I have always lacked a sense of humor, was unable to comprehend jokes, and was excessively serious,” Chan admitted, adding that she began studying the phenomenon five years ago in an attempt to find out how the brain processes humor and to further understand herself.
Gelotophobia is often caused by environmental factors, mostly stemming from difficult relationships with parents during childhood and bullying during teenage years or at work (Ruch, 2009; Ruch et al., 2014) (Figure 2). She added that these causes can result in impairment of the neural connections related to cognition and emotion in gelotophobics. The good news, however, is that, as long as the underlying cause is not congenital, gelotophobics can rewire these neural connections through such training techniques involving listening to more jokes, learning to understand them, and finally gaining the ability to enjoy them.
Figure 2. The putative causes and consequences of gelotophobia (Ruch, 2009).
Chan has also found that students who lack a sense of humor at school often experience lots of difficulties in social interaction, including being ridiculed or bullied; some such students unfortunately go on to inflict bullying on others. Thus, she encourages schools to identify gelotophobics and help them to interpret and develop a flexible and positive appreciation of humor. She also points out the need to educate students about the benefits of non-sarcastic humor to help gelotophobics better enjoy the amusement in jokes.
Dr. Yu-Chen Chan, assistant professor at the Institute of Learning Sciences, National Tsing Hua University.
Platt, T. (2014). Gelotophobia: Living a life in fear of laughter. BBC NEWS,
Proyer et al., (2009). Breaking ground in cross-cultural research on the fear of being laughed at (gelotophobia): An multi-national study involving 73 countries. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 22(1/2), 253-279. Ruch, W. (2009). Fear humor? Gelotophobia: The fear of being laughed at introduction and overview. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 22(1/2), 1-25.
Ruch, W., Hofmann, J., Platt, T., & Proyer, R. (2014). The state-of-the art in gelotophobia research: A review and some theoretical extensions. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 27(1), 23-45.
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