Enhance Your Brain and Have More Fun with Jokes and Brain Teasers

Why Humor Is Key to Mental Health

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Are you looking to enhance your brain health? Dr. Restak provides fun brain teasers and jokes to exercise your mental dexterity.

Three light switches close up
You can reach creative solutions by integrating the use of both brain hemispheres while analyzing a problem. Photo by Stacey Newman / Shutterstock

A Brain Teaser for the Senses

Brain teasers enhance concentration, visual thinking, and creativity. Here’s one: You are in a room with three light switches that turn on three lightbulbs in another room. 

You can turn on only two of the switches, and you’re allowed only one trip into the room to check which two lightbulbs are on. How do you decide which switch turns on which bulb? 

When you attempt to solve this brain teaser, you may be making an unwarranted assumption. “Lightbulb,” “lights,” and “turn on” suggest a visual approach, but think about what other senses might be more helpful in solving the puzzle. In this case, touch—the most primitive sense—actually provides the solution. 

Turn two switches on for 10 or more minutes. Turn one of them off, and go into the other room. The bulb that is still lit is controlled by the switch you left on. 

Now touch the other two bulbs. The switch you turned off controls the warm one. The third switch controls the other light bulb.

The Power of Puzzles

When attempting a brain teaser, keep thinking about it. Mull it over in your mind until it becomes as familiar as the feel of a favorite stone. Then forget about it for a while, and return to it at odd moments, like before going to bed. 

Brain teasers and puzzles strengthen your capacity to concentrate and mull over problems, question initial assumptions, and restate and reframe problems.

You can shift your mental perspectives and integrate brain functions by uniting the activity of the right and left hemispheres. Ultimately, you can achieve creative solutions to problems.

Approaches to word puzzles involve thinking of the words in unusual ways. What associations are aroused? What do the objects in the puzzle have in common? Where do you find them? How can you reorient your thinking?

Why Humor Matters

Humor is also important because jokes require a similar reorientation. For example, a gymnast goes to the instructor and says, “Can you teach me to do splits?” 

The instructor says, “I think so. How flexible are you?” 

The gymnast replies, “I can come any day but Wednesday.” 

This joke is an example of the incongruity-resolution theory. While the setup elicits one line of thinking, the punchline hits us with a different way of thinking.

The frontal lobe plays an active role in the flexible thinking required to get a joke. Frontal lobe damage destroys that flexibility, and the person becomes humorless and literal.

For example, the doctor says to the patient, “What brought you to the hospital today?” The patient says, “The ambulance.” 

Sometimes this literalness can be used as the basis for a joke, as comedian Steven Wright does. Here are two examples: 

1) “Everywhere is walking distance, if you have the time.”

2) “I saw a bank that said ‘24 hours banking.’ I don’t have that much time.”

The prefrontal cortex picks up on the incongruity and sends signals to the supplementary area and the nucleus accumbens, leading to delighted surprise accompanied by laughter. In depressed people, frontal lobe interactions with those structures are decreased. 

As a result, humor is regained only with treatment. Humor can be used therapeutically: It increases arousal levels; skin conductance; and most important, makes the depressed person laugh. 

The bottom line: Puzzles, brain teasers, and jokes enhance the brain by encouraging reasoning, logic, visual imagination, spatial thinking, working memory, and creativity. Equally important, they’re just plain fun!

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.