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Using psychophysiological measures to examine the temporal profile of verbal humor elicitation

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© 2015 Fiacconi, Owen. Despite its pervasiveness in popular culture, there remains much to be learned about the psychological and physiological processes that underlie our experience of humor. In the present study, we examined the temporal profile of verbal humor elicitation using psychophysiological measures of heart rate (HR) and facial electromyography (EMG). Consistent with recent prior research on cardiovascular changes to perceived humor, we found that HR acceleration was greater for jokes relative to non-jokes, and was positively related to the level of perceived humor elicited by these jokes. In addition, activity recorded from the zygomaticus major muscle that controls smiling was found to be greater for jokes relative to nonjokes. To link these physiological changes to the psychological processes that govern humor comprehension, we took the initial inflection point of the zygomatic EMG response as a marker for the onset of humor comprehension, and used this marker to probe the pattern of cardiovascular activity at this time-point. We estimated the onset of the humor response to occur during the initial HR deceleration phase, and found that jokes relative to non-jokes elicited a decreased HR response at this time-point. This result questions the previously forwarded notion that the psychological "moment of insight" that signals the start of the humor response is always associated with heightened cardiovascular activity. This discrepancy is discussed in relation to possible differences in the cognitive processes required to comprehend different forms of humor. At a broader level, our results also demonstrate the advantages of combining different psychophysiological measures to examine psychological phenomena, and illustrate how one such measure can constrain the interpretation of others.

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