“Laughter is a great thing — that’s why we’ve all heard the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.”
There is strong evidence that laughter can actually improve health and help fight disease. In this article, we’ll look at laughter — what it is, what happens in our brains when we laugh, what makes us laugh and how it can make us healthier and happier.
You’ll also learn that there’s a tremendous amount that no one understands yet.
First of all, all laughter has a clear mental component. This is shown by the somewhat surprising fact that you can’t tickle yourself – therefore tickling is not a built-in reflex, you need an element of surprise and tension.
What Is Laughter?
First of all, laughter is not the same as humor. Laughter is the physiological response to humor. Laughter consists of two parts — a set of gestures and the production of a sound. When we laugh, the brain pressures us to conduct both those activities simultaneously. When we laugh heartily, changes occur in many parts of the body, even the arm, leg and trunk muscles.
The physiological study of laughter has its own name — gelotology. And we know that certain parts of the brain are responsible for certain human functions. For example, emotional responses are the function of the brain’s largest region, the frontal lobe. But researchers have learned that the production of laughter is involved with various regions of the brain. While the relationship between laughter and the brain is not fully understood, researchers are making some progress.
Under certain conditions, our bodies perform what the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as “rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions” — better known as laughter. Fifteen facial muscles contract and stimulation of the zygomatic major muscle (the main lifting mechanism of your upper lip) occurs. Meanwhile, the respiratory system is upset by the epiglottis half-closing the larynx, so that air intake occurs irregularly, making you gasp. In extreme circumstances, the tear ducts are activated, so that while the mouth is opening and closing and the struggle for oxygen intake continues, the face becomes moist and often red (or purple). The noises that usually accompany this bizarre behavior range from sedate giggles to boisterous guffaws.
Behavioral neurobiologist and pioneering laughter researcher Robert Provine jokes that he has encountered one major problem in his study of laughter. The problem is that laughter disappears just when he is ready to observe it — especially in the laboratory. One of his studies looked at the sonic structure of laughter. He discovered that all human laughter consists of variations on a basic form that consists of short, vowel-like notes repeated every 210 milliseconds. Laughter can be of the “ha-ha-ha” variety or the “ho-ho-ho” type but not a mixture of both, he says. Provine also suggests that humans have a “detector” that responds to laughter by triggering other neural circuits in the brain, which, in turn, generates more laughter. This explains why laughter is contagious.
Humor researcher Peter Derks describes laughter response as “a really quick, automatic type of behavior.” “In fact, how quickly our brain recognizes the incongruity that lies at the heart of most humor and attaches an abstract meaning to it determines whether we laugh,” he says.
The Limbic System – Structures in the brain’s limbic system, which controls many essential human behaviors, also contribute to the production of laughter.
When we look more closely at the areas of the brain involved with laughter, the limbic system seems to be central. The limbic system is a network of structures located beneath the cerebral cortex. This system is important because it controls some behaviors that are essential to the life of all mammals (finding food, self-preservation).
Interestingly, the same structures found in the human limbic system can also be found in the brains of evolutionary ancient animals such as the alligator. In the alligator, the limbic system is heavily involved in smell and plays an important role in defending territory, hunting and eating prey. In humans, the limbic system is more involved in motivation and emotional behaviors.
While the structures in this highly developed part of the brain interconnect, research has shown that the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure deep inside the brain, and the hippocampus, a tiny, seahorse-shaped structure, seem to be the main areas involved with emotions. The amygdala connects with the hippocampus as well as the medial dorsal nucleus of the thalamus. These connections enable it to play an important role in the mediation and control of major activities like friendship, love and affection and on the expression of mood. The hypothalamus, particularly its median part, has been identified as a major contributor to the production of loud, uncontrollable laughter.
Why Do We Laugh?
Philosopher John Morreall believes that the first human laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger. And since the relaxation that results from a bout of laughter inhibits the biological fight-or-flight response, laughter may indicate trust in one’s companions.
Many researchers believe that the purpose of laughter is related to making and strengthening human connections. “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter [there is], the more bonding [occurs] within the group,” says cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte. This feedback “loop” of bonding-laughter-more bonding, combined with the common desire not to be singled out from the group, may be another reason why laughter is often contagious.
Studies have also found that dominant individuals — the boss, the tribal chief or the family patriarch — use humor more than their subordinates. If you’ve often thought that everyone in the office laughs when the boss laughs, you’re very perceptive. In such cases, Morreall says, controlling the laughter of a group becomes a way of exercising power by controlling the emotional climate of the group. So laughter, like much human behavior, must have evolved to change the behavior of others, Provine says. For example, in an embarrassing or threatening situation, laughter may serve as a conciliatory gesture or as a way to deflect anger. If the threatening person joins the laughter, the risk of confrontation may lessen.
Provine is among only a few people who are studying laughter much as an animal behaviorist might study a dog’s bark or a bird’s song. He believes that laughter, like the bird’s song, functions as a kind of social signal. Other studies have confirmed that theory by proving that people are 30 times more likely to laugh in social settings than when they are alone (and without pseudo-social stimuli like television). Even nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, loses much of its oomph when taken in solitude, according to German psychologist Willibald Ruch.
Laughter is triggered when we find something humorous.
There are three traditional theories about what we find humorous:
The ‘incongruity theory’ suggests that humor arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together. Researcher Thomas Veatch says a joke becomes funny when we expect one outcome and another happens. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies are already anticipating what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion and is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears. We now have new emotions, backing up a different line of thought. In other words, we experience two sets of incompatible thoughts and emotions simultaneously. We experience this incongruity between the different parts of the joke as humorous.
The ‘superiority theory’ comes into play when we laugh at jokes that focus on someone else’s mistakes, stupidity or misfortune. We feel superior to this person, experience a certain detachment from the situation and so are able to laugh at it.
The ‘relief theory’ is the basis for a device movie-makers have used effectively for a long time. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, the director uses comic relief at just the right times. He builds up the tension or suspense as much as possible and then breaks it down slightly with a side comment, enabling the viewer to relieve himself of pent-up emotion, just so the movie can build it up again! Similarly, an actual story or situation creates tension within us. As we try to cope with two sets of emotions and thoughts, we need a release and laughter is the way of cleansing our system of the built-up tension and incongruity.
According to Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, humor, especially dark humor, can help workers cope with stressful situations.“The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress”.
That’s Not Funny!
Experts say that several obvious differences in people affect what they find humorous. The most significant seems to be age.
Infants and children are constantly discovering the world around them. A lot of what goes on seems ridiculous and surprising, which strikes them as funny. What’s funny to a toddler consists of short and simple concepts, like an elephant joke. Along with the ridiculous and the surprising, children — much to their parents’ dismay — also appreciate jokes where cruelty is present (it boosts their self-assertiveness) and what we refer to as “toilet humor.” To children, a preoccupation with bodily functions is simply another way of exploring their fascinating new environment.
The pre-teen and teenage years are, almost universally, awkward and tense. Lots of adolescents and teens laugh at jokes that focus on sex, food, authority figures and — in typical rebellious style — any subject that adults consider off-limits. It is an insecure time of life and young people often use humor as a tool to protect themselves or to feel superior.
As we mature, both our physical bodies and mental outlooks grow and change. Since there is a certain amount of intelligence involved in “getting” a joke, our senses of humor becomes more developed as we learn more. By the time we’re grown, we have experienced much of life, including tragedy and success. In keeping with these experiences, our senses of humor are more mature. We laugh at other people and ourselves in shared common predicaments and embarrassments. The adult sense of humor is usually characterized as more subtle, more tolerant and less judgmental about the differences in people. The things we find funny as a result of our age or developmental stage seem to be related to the stressors we experience during this time. Basically, we laugh at the issues that stress us out.
Another factor that affects what we find funny is the culture or community from which we come. Have you ever laughed at a joke and realized that if you were from anywhere else in the world, it just wouldn’t be funny? It’s a fact of life that culture and community provide lots of fodder for jokes. There are economic, political and social issues that are easy to laugh about, but only the people living in that culture may understand it. For example, a joke from a small country might not have universal appeal because it would be so little understood. The big, influential, much-observed United States might be the exception to this rule. Thanks to media and movies, most people around the world know what is going on here. So jokes about a situation in the United States can be enjoyed pretty much across the globe.
When people say “That’s not funny,” theorist Veatch says they mean either “It is offensive” or “So, what’s the point?” For someone to find a joke or situation offensive, he must have some attachment to the principle or person being demeaned or put down in the joke. So racist and sexist jokes are offensive to many people who feel strongly about fighting bigotry and prejudice in the world. According to Veatch, when someone says, “So, what’s the point?” it indicates the absence of any moral or emotional attachment or commitment to the joke’s “victim.”
Here’s a joke:
Bill Gates and the president of General Motors have met for lunch, and Bill is going on and on about computer technology. “If automotive technology had kept pace with computer technology over the past few decades, you would now be driving a V-32 instead of a V-8, and it would have a top speed of 10,000 miles per hour,” says Gates. “Or, you could have an economy car that weighs 30 pounds and gets a thousand miles to a gallon of gas. In either case, the sticker price of a new car would be less than $50. Why haven’t you guys kept up?” The president of GM smiles and says, “Because the federal government won’t let us build cars that crash four times a day.”
Laughter and Health
We’ve long known that the ability to laugh is helpful to those coping with major illness and the stress of life’s problems. But researchers are now saying laughter can do a lot more — it can basically bring balance to all the components of the immune system, which helps us fight off diseases.
As we mentioned earlier, laughter reduces levels of certain stress hormones. In doing this, laughter provides a safety valve that shuts off the flow of stress hormones and the fight-or-flight compounds that swing into action in our bodies when we experience stress, anger or hostility. These stress hormones suppress the immune system, increase the number of blood platelets (which can cause obstructions in arteries) and raise blood pressure. When we’re laughing, natural killer cells that destroy tumors and viruses increase, as do Gamma-interferon (a disease-fighting protein), T-cells, which are a major part of the immune response, and B-cells, which make disease-destroying antibodies.
Laughter may lead to hiccuping and coughing, which clears the respiratory tract by dislodging mucous plugs. Laughter also increases the concentration of salivary immunoglobulin A, which defends against infectious organisms entering through the respiratory tract.
What may surprise you even more is the fact that researchers estimate that laughing 100 times is equal to 10 minutes on the rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike. Laughing can be a total body workout! Blood pressure is lowered, and there is an increase in vascular blood flow and in oxygenation of the blood, which further assists healing. Laughter also gives your diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles a workout. That’s why you often feel exhausted after a long bout of laughter — you’ve just had an aerobic workout!
The psychological benefits of humor are quite amazing, according to doctors and nurses who are members of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor. People often store negative emotions, such as anger, sadness and fear, rather than expressing them. Laughter provides a way for these emotions to be harmlessly released. Laughter is cathartic.
That’s why some people who are upset or stressed out go to a funny movie or a comedy club, so they can laugh the negative emotions away (these negative emotions, when held inside, can cause biochemical changes that can affect our bodies).
Increasingly, ‘mental health professionals‘ are suggesting “laughter therapy,” which teaches people how to laugh — openly — at things that aren’t usually funny and to cope in difficult situations by using humor. Following the lead of real-life funny-doc Patch Adams (portrayed by Robin Williams in a movie by the same name), doctors and psychiatrists are becoming more aware of the therapeutic benefits of laughter and humor. This is due, in part, to the growing body of humor and laughter scholarship (500 academicians from different disciplines belong to the International Society for Humor Studies).
Humans are a pretty laugh-happy group. A professor at the University of Western Ontario calculated that the average person chuckles, guffaws or snickers 17.5 times per day . How does that laughter happen? What buttons does a comment or comedic situation need to push in order to coax a cackle? Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, neurologists have a pretty good idea of how the brain finds something funny.
However, ‘female brains’ spend more time picking apart the verbiage and derived a more potent mesolimbic — a.k.a. reward — response when they hit the punch line. That small-scale study hinted that men and women possess distinct, gender-related funny meters. While women might not laugh at a joke as quickly as men, they’ll laugh harder when they’re genuinely amused .
Differences in Male and Female Brain Structure
Scientists have known for a while now that men and women have slightly different brains, but they thought the changes were limited to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls sex drive and food intake. A few scientists may have admitted that men’s brains were indeed bigger, but they would have tried to qualify this finding by telling you that it was because men were bigger. Because brain size has been linked with intelligence, it’s very tricky to go around saying that men have bigger brains. Yet men do seem to have women beat here; even when accounting for height and weight differences, men have slightly bigger brains. Does this mean they’re smarter? Let’s keep going.
The brain is made primarily of two different types of tissue, called gray matter and white matter. This new research reveals that men think more with their gray matter, and women think more with white. Researchers stressed that just because the two sexes think differently, this does not affect intellectual performance.
In 2001, researchers from Harvard found that certain parts of the brain were differently sized in males and females, which may help balance out the overall size difference. The study found that parts of the frontal lobe, responsible for problem-solving and decision-making, and the limbic cortex, responsible for regulating emotions, were larger in women .
In men, the parietal cortex, which is involved in space perception, and the amygdala, which regulates sexual and social behavior, were larger .
Men also have approximately 6.5 times more gray matter in the brain than women, but before the heads of all the men out there start to swell, listen to this: Women have about 10 times more white matter than men do . This difference may account for differences in how men and women think. Men seem to think with their gray matter, which is full of active neurons. Women think with the white matter, which consists more of connections between the neurons. In this way, a woman’s brain is a bit more complicated in setup, but those connections may allow a woman’s brain to work faster than a man’s .
If you’re a lady still concerned about the size issues brought up in the first paragraph, let’s address that now. In women’s brains, the neurons are packed in tightly, so that they’re closer together. This proximity, in conjunction with speedy connections facilitated by the white matter, is another reason why women’s brains work faster. Some women even have as many as 12 percent more neurons than men do . In studying women’s brains, psychologist Sandra Witelson found that those neurons were most densely crowded on certain layers of the cortex, namely the ones responsible for signals coming in and out of the brain. This, Witelson believed, may be one reason why women tend to score higher on tests that involve language and communication, and she came to believe that these differences were present from birth .
But the density of women’s neurons, much like the size of a guy’s brain, isn’t any sort of magic bullet for predicting intelligence. Scientists know this because they’ve conducted imaging studies on how men and women think. As we’ve said, men use gray matter, and women use white, but they’re also accessing different sections of the brain for the same task. In one study, men and women were asked to sound out different words. Men relied on just one small area on the left side of the brain to complete the task, while the majority of women used areas in both sides of the brain . However, both men and women sounded out the words equally well, indicating that there is more than one way for the brain to arrive at the same result. For example, while women get stuck with a bad reputation for reading maps, it may just be that they orient to landmarks differently. And as for intelligence, average IQ scores are the same for both men and women .
For example, ‘depression and chronic anxiety‘ are diagnosed far more often in women; this may have to do with differences in the chemical composition of the brain, as one study has shown that women produce only about half as much serotonin (a neurotransmitter linked to depression) as men and have fewer transporters to recycle it . Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet shows that the brain’s serotonin system differs between men and women.
The scientists who conducted the study think that they have found one of the reasons why ‘depression and chronic anxiety‘ are more common in women than in men.
Serotonin is a brain neurotransmitter that is critical to the development and treatment of depression and chronic anxiety, conditions that, for reasons still unknown, are much more common in women than in men. A research group at Karolinska Institutet has now shown using a PET scanner that women and men differ in terms of the number of binding sites for serotonin in certain parts of the brain.
Their results, which are to be presented in a doctoral thesis by Hristina Jovanovic, show that women have a greater number of the most common serotonin receptors than men. They also show that women have lower levels of the protein that transports serotonin back into the nerve cells that secrete it. It is this protein that the most common antidepressants (SSRIs) block.
“We don’t know exactly what this means, but the results can help us understand why the occurrence of depression differs between the sexes and why men and women sometimes respond differently to treatment with antidepressant drugs,” says associate professor Anna-Lena Nordström, who led the study. The group has also shown that the serotonin system in healthy women differs from that in women with serious premenstrual mental symptoms. These results suggest that the serotonin system in such women does not respond as flexibly to the hormone swings of the menstrual cycle as that in symptom-free women.
“These findings indicate that when developing antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, scientists should evaluate their effect on men and women separately, as well as their effects before and after menopause,” says Ms Nordström.
Or, it may have to do with how the various sides of the female brain respond to emotions and pain.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be diagnosed with ‘autism‘, Tourette’s syndrome, dyslexia and schizophrenia, to name a few . Additionally, disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease can show up differently in men and women .
Based on the location of neurons, brain injuries may affect men and women differently .
This sort of knowledge could affect drug treatments, or at least explain why some drugs work differently in men and women. It extends beyond just drugs, though. One study has found that men and women’s brains fire differently when they do plan a visually guided action, like reaching for an object. This may necessitate changes in physical therapy after a brain disorder that affects one side of the brain, like a stroke .
Scientists have more work to do in learning about the human brain.
Here are some tips to help you put more laughter in your life:
- Figure out what makes you laugh and do it (or read it or watch it) more often.
- Surround yourself with funny people — be with them every chance you get.
- Develop your own sense of humor. Maybe even take a class to learn how to be a better comic — or at least a better joke-teller at that next party.
Physical Benefits of Laughter
- Muscle Relaxation – Belly laughs result in muscle relaxation. While we laugh, the muscles that do not participate in the belly laugh, relax. After we finish laughing those muscles involved in the laughter start to relax. So, the releasing action takes place in two stages.
- Reduction of Stress Hormones – Laughter reduces at least four of the neuroendocrine hormones associated with the stress response. These are epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and growth hormone.
- Pain Reduction – Humor allows a person to “forget” about pains such as aches, arthritis, etc.
- Cardiac Exercise – A belly laugh is equivalent to “internal jogging.” Laughter can provide good cardiac conditioning especially for those who are unable to perform physical exercises.
- Blood Pressure – Women seem to benefit from laughter more than men in preventing hypertension.
- Respiration – Frequent belly laughter empties our lungs of more air than it takes in resulting in a cleansing effect, similar to deep breathing. This is especially beneficial for patient’s who are suffering from emphysema and other respiratory ailments.
- Elevates the immune system – Clinical studies have shown that humor strengthens the immune system because of the positive body chemicals that it engenders.
Be funny every chance you get — as long as it’s not at someone else’s expense!
A team of scientists at Dartmouth hooked study participants up to an fMRI machine and watched what lit up during episodes of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons”. Although the people might not have laughed out loud at Kramer’s antics or Bart’s sassy responses, the fMRI provide a sneak peek into how we process comedic material. In that experiment, the researchers detected a two-part detection and appreciation process. Joke detection occurred in the left inferior frontal and posterior temporal cortices on the left side of the brain . The left side of the brain helps us sort through novel or unexpected information and cross-reference it to information already stored in our memories. Going back to the incongruity theory mentioned earlier, this brain function helps us make sense of situational contrasts and their unexpected resolutions — i.e., the jokes. Once our brains process the content of the joke, the appreciation happens in the insular cortex and amygdala, which help regulate our emotions .
Similar MRI and fMRI experimentation indicates that verbal jokes and pratfalls require preliminary language processing, although different types involve different brain areas in the left hemisphere. For example, semantic jokes characterized by incongruity and resolution (“How do you keep an elephant from charging? Take away his credit card.”) activate the temporal lobe that helps our brains sort through ambiguous or contrasting information and outcomes . Meanwhile, puns energize Broca’s area, the brain’s language control center . Well-known jokes of the “Guy walks in a bar…” variety jolt the brain’s frontal lobe, which is associated with higher cognitive functioning. A separate study also found that frontal lobe damage impairs people’s ability to understand punch lines, causing those patients to prefer lower-brow slapstick comedy .
After this mental workout, our brains offer a reward for enjoying a punch line. If something tickles our funny bones, our brains deliver shots of pleasure-inducing dopamine, via the amygdala . That dopamine link also explains why it’s hard to laugh at anything when we’re down in the dumps. When the mesolimbic reward system turns off the dopamine valve, our moods and senses of humor tend to diminish in suit. But when we do crack up, neurons called spindle cells further assist in the funny-making monkey business by transmitting the delighted emotion across the brain .
Given these neurological patterns, finding that secret algorithm for funny might seem like a no-brainer. Figure out what elements — two guys walking into a bar, a chicken crossing a road, a knock-knocking at a door — delight these brain regions and create comedy gold from there. But one interesting finding in the neurology of humor indicates why the scientific formula for funny probably doesn’t exist.
A 2004 study from Washington University School of Medicine compared the brain’s humor pathways among male and female participants. The fMRI scans revealed that both sexes exhibited similar action in the temporal lobes as their brains sorted through semantic knowledge and processed the language to find the funny .”