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Amusement and the Philosophy of Emotion: A Neuroanatomical Approach

  • Joseph T. Palencik (a1)

Philosophers who discuss the emotions have usually treated amusement as a non-emotional mental state. Two prominent philosophers making this claim are Henri Bergson and John Morreall, who maintain that amusement is too abstract and intellectual to qualify as an emotion. Here, the merit of this claim is assessed. Through recent work in neuroanatomy there is reason to doubt the legitimacy of dichotomies that separate emotion and the intellect. Findings suggest that the neuroanatomical structure of amusement is similar to other commonly recognized emotion states. On the basis of these it is argued that amusement should be considered an emotion.

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1 Amusement in this sense is usually considered distinct from the sense I intend to address here. Karl Pfeifer, however, suggests that all forms of amusement might in fact be the same: “[To] the extent that agreeable diversion is involved, amusement in the narrowly focused sense (e.g., as a proper reaction to humor) might plausibly be regarded as a special case of amusement in the broadly focused sense” (“Laughter, Freshness, and Titillation,” Inquiry, 40 [1997]: 307–22, esp. p. 316).

2 Roberts R., “Is Amusement an Emotion?American Philosophical Quarterly, 25, 3 (1988): 269–74.

3 de Sousa R., The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), p. 277.

4 See especially Griffiths P., What Emotions Really Are (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Robinson J., “Startle,” Journal of Philosophy, 92 (1995): 5374.

5 Bergson H., Laughter (New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 63.

7 Ibid., p. 187.

8 Ibid., p. 186.

9 Morreall J., “Humor and Emotion,” in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, edited by Morreall J. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp. 212–24, esp. p. 216.

10 Morreall later suggests that there are some cognitively sophisticated emotions, such as resentment and indignation. However, these can be seen as developing out of cognitively simpler emotions. Thus, for example, resentment is a sophisticated form of anger occasioned by certain kinds of judgements and evaluations only humans make.

11 Morreall, “Humor and Emotion,” p. 217.

12 Morreall gives two additional reasons to support this independently of Berg-son's account. First, we do not usually react positively or negatively to the intentional object of amusement as we would towards the intentional object of an emotion. To dislike an acquaintance is to feel a certain way towards someone. Yet, when we are amused by another's antics, we need not feel one way or another towards him as a person. Amusement, then, does not occasion a positive or negative attitude towards an object while emotions do. Also, because emotions seem to entail some beliefs about their intentional object, e.g., that a fearful animal can become harmful, they are separate from amusement. We are often amused, says Morreall, without necessarily believing that a thing is incongruous. It is necessary only to see an object as if it is incongruous. Neither of these reasons seem very convincing though. In feeling surprise, say, one's attitude toward the intentional object of an emotion can be pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent. A specifically positive or negative attitude is not explicitly required. Moreover, if we include surprise with so-called “affect program” emotions, the formation of cognitive beliefs about an intentional object would be excluded from such an emotion (until later in reflection). There are reasons to dispute this; however, I find that Morreall's case here is immaterial to the direction of this project.

13 Morreall, “Humor and Emotion,” p. 221.

14 See Damasio A., Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1994).

15 Damasio goes on to include stimulations in the prefrontal cortex as emotions, what he calls “secondary emotions.” See ibid., pp. 136–38.

16 In his later book, Damasio finds that significant damage to the prefrontal regions of the brain, especially the ventral and medial sectors, and the right parietal region will produce similar clinical patterns. See Damasio A., The Feeling of What Happens (New York: Harcourt Press, 1999).

17 Damasio, Descartes' Error, p. 193.

18 Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, pp. 4142.

19 Patricia Greenspan convincingly points out that traditional Cartesian substance dualism is actually not the appropriate target for Damasio's argument. For more on this, see Greenspan P., “Emotions, Rationality, and Mind/Body,” in Thinking about Feeling: Contemporary Philosophers on Emotion, edited by Solomon Robert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 125–34.

20 We have briefly mentioned the incongruity theory, which was endorsed by thinkers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, Bergson, and Morreall. Other theories, such as the superiority theory (Plato and Aristotle) and the psychoanalytic theory (Freud) have received attention philosophically but are infrequently discussed in neuroanatomical explanations.

21 See Wild B., Erb M., Bartels M., and Grodd W., “Why Are Smiles Contagious? An fMRI Study of the Interaction between Perception of Facial Affect and Facial Movements,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 123 (2003): 1736.

22 See Ferguson S. M., Schwartz M. L., and Ryport M., “Perception of Humor in Patients with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy: A Cartoon Test as an Indicator of Neuropsychological Deficit,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 21 (1969): 363–67.

23 See Shammi P. and Stuss D. T., “Humor Appreciation: A Role of the Right Frontal Lobe,” Brain, 122 (1999): 657–66.

24 These findings are consistent with studies of normal subjects where areas of cerebral activity through MRI revealed activations in the temporal regions and the left frontal areas of the brain. In one study, subjects listened to tape recordings of jokes and other amusing texts. MRI revealed increased activity in Broca's area and the middle frontal gyrus. See Ozawa F., Matsuo K., Kato C., Nakai T., Isoda H., Takehara Y. et al. ,, “The Effects of Listening Comprehension of Various Genres of Literature on Response in the Linguistic Area: An fMRI study,” Neuroreport, 11 (2000): 1141–43. In a second study, phonological jokes (puns) were shown to induce the left posterior middle temporal gyrus and the left inferior frontal gyrus, while semantic jokes were associated with the left posterior middle gyrus, the left posterior inferior temporal gyrus, the right posterior middle temporal gyrus, and the cerebellum. See Goel V. and Dolan R. J., “The Functional Anatomy of Humor: Segregating Cognitive and Affective Components,” Nature Neuroscience, 4 (2001): 237–38.

25 See Aalto S., Näätänen P., Wallius W., Metsähonkala L., Stenman H., Niemi P. M., and Karlson H., “Neuroanatomical Substrat of Amusment and Sadness: A PET Activation Study Using Film Stimuli,” NeuroReport, 13 (2002): 6773.

26 For more on this, see Shammi and Stuss, “Humor Appreciation: A Role of the Right Frontal Lobe.”

27 Aalto et al. , “Neuroanatomical Substrat of Amusment and Sadness: A PET Activation Study Using Film Stimuli,” p. 71.

28 For Griffiths the story is much more complicated than this. His work does not merely utilize the neuroanatomical similarity between states, but establishes a broader homology to individuate emotions.

29 To be clear, I am not arguing that neuroanatomical studies alone establish the character of emotions; rather, I claim that they can provide important grounds for considering why we should or should not call something an emotion. In this I am in considerable agreement with many prominent philosophers of emotion (e.g., Robinson and Griffiths).

30 De Sousa appears to agree with this assessment of Bergson: “We tend to associate cold detachment with alienation, and identification with empathy and therefore with evaluative engagement. But these are no more than associations. The two dimensions are independent” (The Rationality of Emotion, p. 289).

31 While I think that Morreall is correct in considering the importance of the frontal lobe along with visual and auditory systems of the brain during amusement, I do not think that our engagement with amusing situations need always be complex. Physical comedy, for example, can be very amusing for reasons that are not difficult to understand. In a separate sense, though, one may take notice of the various systems involved that make amusement possible (e.g., auditory, visual). To my mind, the relative complexity here does not speak against the range of engagement that is possible for different types of amusement.

32 I would like to thank Carolyn Korsmeyer for her frequent words of encouragement and for her numerous helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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