Sleep Deprivation Might Explain Why Some Jokes Are Funnier Than They Actually Are

So was that joke actually funny, or do you just need more sleep?

Couple laughing while sitting on flour
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Why didn’t the bicycle cross the road? Because it was two tired. If you teared up a little, laughing at that dad joke, you might also be too tired.

No offense to the wonderful dad-joke folks out there. But we all recognize the typical dad joke when we hear one — because they usually elicit an eye roll (albeit a loving one) rather than a full-bodied chuckle. And that’s kind of their M.O.

Even Merriam–Webster defines the dad joke as “wholesome” and “with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.”

So what does it actually mean when you find an “unfunny” dad joke — or something else that’s truly cornball — to be a laughing-until-you’re-crying moment? Well, don’t panic. You haven’t completely lost your marbles. Laughing at something you normally wouldn’t find funny might be a sign you need some sleep.

Lack of Sleep Causes a Bout of Euphoria

“There’ve been quite a few studies demonstrating that the attention areas of the brain, specifically the frontoparietal areas of the brain, are significantly affected with sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Paul E. Kaloostian, a board-certified neurosurgeon who practices in Riverside and Los Angeles.

The frontoparietal cortex controls our ability to focus on and process what’s being said to us. “So it could go either way,” Kaloostian adds. “You could take a particular statement or joke or whatever and think of it as either super funny or not. It just depends on the actual person and their interpretation of it at that particular time.”

In a 2011 study, researchers from UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School found that sleep deprivation can cause a short-lived bout of euphoria, which can lead to lapses in judgment. If euphoria is driving your decision making, you could make a risky choice with serious consequences. That’s a worst-case scenario.

But that bout of exhilaration also explains why you might just find those dad jokes a little, or a lot, funnier after pulling an all-nighter studying, after waking up repeatedly with an infant, or, if you’re a neurosurgeon like Kaloostian, after being on call.

“[As a neurosurgeon] you’re always being woken up every 20 to 30 minutes,” he says. “The next day after call, you just feel tired. It’s that feeling where you’re not thinking completely normally.”

Sleep Deprivation Impacts Perception

In the same study, the Berkeley and Harvard researchers looked at 27 healthy adults, age 18 to 30. They split participants into two groups. One group of participants hit the hay at home, as they would normally. The other group remained awake under observation in a laboratory setting for about 32 hours.

Then the participants viewed images of generally pleasant scenes and were asked to provide a rating of either “positive” or “neutral.” The participants who pulled the all-nighter gave more positive ratings, whereas the group who secured all their Zzzz’s gave more neutral scores.

Lack of Sleep Activates Reward Pathways

The brain scans of the folks who skipped out on their shut-eye showed more activity in the mesolimbic pathway. The mesolimbic pathway is also called the reward pathway because it transports dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences mood, motivation, pleasure, and decision making.

“Certainly some people may experience that hormonal rush initially when they’re tired, based on a variety of catecholamines, like cortisol, that are secreted,” Kaloostian says. Catecholamines are hormones our bodies make when we’re in fight-or-flight mode to help us muddle through stress. They include dopamine and cortisol. And we may feel loopy and laughy as a result of our bodies trying to give us a boost.

Euphoria from Sleep Deprivation Is Short-Lived and Potentially Risky

Kaloostian cautions against ignoring this state and staying up or trying to purposefully achieve it just to enjoy a sense of temporary euphoria — or to make Dad feel better about his punny, but not all-that-funny, jokes.

“There’s a steep drop eventually as the day goes on where that eventually goes away,” he says. “So you may have that initial giddiness, but then it will plateau.” Ultimately, you won’t be laughing for too long at, Why did the elephant bring toilet paper to the party? Because you too will have turned into a major party pooper.

Plus, the temporary positive feeling that’s sometimes brought on by sleep deprivation could lead to risky or impulsive actions.

The Berkeley and Harvard researchers drew on their related previous study from 2007, which found that sleep-deprived participants show enhanced reactivity in the amygdala, the fight-or-flight region of the brain, and a tamping down of activity in the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making and planning part of the brain. This means that we’re less able to properly evaluate risks and rewards under sleep deprivation, putting ourselves at risk for potential negative consequences. Addictive behaviors are an example, Kaloostian says.

Getting a Good Night’s Rest Is Nothing to Laugh at

“Sleep is probably the most important thing we can do for our bodies,” Kaloostian says. “It’s really the body’s way of removing waste, healing injury to our brains and bodies that have occurred during that particular day and the day before, and allowing homeostasis, or a kind of regulation of things back to where it should be.”

For the brain to recuperate, he recommends a minimum of six hours of uninterrupted sleep, but he says many people may need more. If you feel yourself frequently getting loopy late at night or into the wee hours, you might be sleep deprived. In that case, make additional pillow time an intentional part of your daily goals.

Ultimately, you should: Get so good at sleeping, you can do it with your eyes closed… (Sorry —had to!) The bottom line is that, rather than opting for that giggly, euphoric state, you should get your rest. And maybe — just maybe — those dad jokes will be put to bed, too.

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