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The Science Behind What Makes Puns So Irresistible

Dad jokes are a sign of having kids, intelligence, or brain damage. Pick one.

A penchant for corny humor and puns may just be a symptom of parenthood, but studies suggest it can also signal everything from above-average intelligence to brain damage. If there’s one common denominator that unifies all dad jokes, beyond their universal ability to elicit eye-rolls, it’s the presence of puns. Researchers agree that there’s a science to why and how puns work. Turns out that puns — even if the ones that are gleefully dumb — are surprising complex, a kind of sophisticated wordplay that’s ripe with logic and wit. But let us delve deeper into the science of puns, so that punny fathers can both demonstrate their comedy chops and explain to their family members why they’re so funny.

Puns Can Be a Sign of Intelligence

Even though puns have a rep for being stupid, even the dumbest of puns can be a sign of intelligence. Researchers found that puns were linked with mental and mating aptitude in a 2011 study published in the journal Intelligence. Other experts contend that puns help people communicate more economically and effectively.

“For most of Western history, puns were a sign of high intellect,” John Pollack, author of The Pun Also Rises, told The Atlantic. “They were a tool, and they remain a tool, to pack more meaning into fewer words.”

But Sometimes They’re a Sign of Brain Damage

For every 10 embarrassing dads who demand to know whether you can go to the bathroom or not, there’s one who is punning due to a frontal lobe injury. In a 2016 study, researchers followed two patients with Witzelsucht, a neuropsychiatric disease that compels people to make puns. One of the subjects reported that the disease was ruining his marriage because he couldn’t stop telling groan-worthy jokes to his wife in the middle of the night. Examples of jokes spurred by the brain disease varied from standard fare, such as “How do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table,” to indecipherable nonsense, such as “Went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driver’s license. They gave me an eye exam, and here is what they said: ABCDEFG, HIJKMNLOP, QRS, TUV, WXY, and Z; now I know my ABC’s, can I have my license please?”

Puns Require the Use Of Both Sides of Your Brain

While it can seem like punny people aren’t using their brains at all, it actually takes both the right and left hemispheres of the brain to tell a joke, research suggests. The left side, or the linguistic hemisphere, processes the basic language of the pun, and then the right side kicks in right after to reveal the surprise double-meaning — the punchline.

Computers Can Pun With the Best

Machine learning technology has enabled computers to join the pun game for some time now. In 2011, scientists from the University of Washington wrote a program that could add “that’s what she said” to appropriate sentences with 72 percent accuracy. One winning example: “Don’t you think these buns are a little too big for this meat?”… “That’s what she said.”

Another comparably crass study from the University of Edinburgh showed that a computer can be programmed to riff off the basic model of “I like my women (or men) like I like my coffee.” Some results were more problematic than others, such as “I like my men like I like my court … superior,” and “I like my women like I like my … camera … ready to flash.” (Come on, computers). But it’s not all bad, blush-worthy humor. Another software program called STANDUP uses computerized puns to help children with non-verbal cerebral palsy practice communication and socializing skills. Almost makes up for it.

Hate Puns? That’s Science, Too

If it’s unclear why your family hates even your best material, consider that some researchers suggest it’s because your puns waste precious time. There’s a conversation going on here, and you keep interrupting the flow of discussion with groan-worthy one-liners. “A pun sidetracks you,” Charlie Hopper writes in a McSweeney’s article about why people hate puns. “It’s your friend who won’t let you get anything done.” Another theory, put forth by Pollack in his book is that people who don’t like puns have controlling personalities. “If you have an approach to the world that is rules-based, driven by hierarchy and threatened by irreverence, then you’re not going to like puns,” he writes.

In other words, haters gonna hate. Just remember: It’s not you, it’s them. But it could also be your bad puns, and it wouldn’t hurt to get your frontal lobe checked out.