Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Laugh a lot and live long: The science of more than just humor.

We all know that laughing makes you feel good and there is a plethora of scientific research that may back up this claim. Let’s review why we laugh, how we laugh, and five possible benefits of laughing!

Why do we laugh? According to Dr. Provine, a neurologist and psychologist, laughing is a social form of communication. In fact, we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with other people than when we are alone (Provine 1996). Interestingly, we do not just laugh in response to humor. Provine had his students observe humans in their natural environment- a shopping mall. The students recorded the context of laughter and found that 80% of the time people laughed, they were not laughing at anything resembling humor. This observation may be explained by the assumption that humans used laughter to communicate millions of years before they could speak (Provine 1996). That is, our ancestors used laughing to express relief after a passing of a danger (Brain 2000). Furthermore, infants are typically able to laugh at seven months, about five months before they can talk (Provine 1996).

A baby laughing: proof that laughter is a primitive form of communication for which humans are hardwired?

How do we laugh? A lesson in Gelotology.

Gelotology is the study of the complex process of laughter. Unlike other emotional responses, which only require one region of the brain, laughing, in response to humor, involves five regions of the brain: (1) The left side of the cortex analyzes the words and structure of the joke. (2) The frontal lobe -- responsible for emotional responses – becomes active. (3) The right hemisphere works to understand the joke. (4) Brain waves are sent to the occipital lobe and (5) the motor sections are stimulated to create a physical response to the joke (Brain 2000). An interesting implication of the complexity of laughing is that damage to any of these regions can impair our ability to understand or react to a joke.

How well is the right hemisphere your cortex working today?

5 possible health benefits of laughing:

1. Laughing can prevent heart disease. A study at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh than people without heart disease (UMM 2000). The American Heart Association explains that laughing can improve cardiovascular health because it temporarily quickens the pulse rate, stimulates the blood circulation, increases oxygen intake, and helps you relax (AHA 2008). How well does your sense of humor protect you from heart disease? Take the quiz!

2. Laughing can augment immune system functioning. Laughing increases the amount of antibody producing cells and increases the effectiveness of Tcell (Berk 2001).

3. Laughing is good exercise. Laughing exercises 15 facial muscles, as well as chest, abdominal, and skeletal muscles. If you ever laughed so much that your stomach hurt, you were probably doing your abs a favor! These benefits are especially important for bed ridden individuals who can use a dose of humor to stimulate exercise. Laughing has also been described as “exercise for the innards” because it exercises gastrointestinal muscles and improves digestion (Berk 2001).

4. Laughing improves respiration (Berk 2001). Laughing clears mucous plugs and residual air made up of carbon dioxide and water vapor. Therefore, there is less excess moisture which can promote pulmonary bacterial growth. Because of this health benefit, people with chronic respiratory conditions may find that laughing is an alleviatory measure.

5. Laughing improves mental health. Laughing produces catecholamine compounds, which prepare the body for a flight or fight response. Berk 2001 claims that adults who chortle regularly will benefit from increased alertness and memory.

*Some scientists and doctors are reluctant to claim that laughing can improve your health. The benefits that correspond with laughing may not be due to laughing per se, but rather due to the social situations that stimulates such laughter.

Given the possible salubrious benefits of laughing, it's time for a dose of good medicine. Here is the funniest joke as voted by the world (according to

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?". The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"

Not funny? Respond to the blog with your favorite joke : )

A word of caution: laughing can kill! Too much laughter can cause seizures and narcoleptic attacks. Additionally, due to a sudden rise in blood pressure, laughing can cause myocardial infarction (read: heart attack). These facts can explain the use of inciting laughter as a method of torture. In Ancient Rome, people would have a goat lick salt off a victim’s feet. If the licking (and laughing) continued for long enough, the victim would die. Tickle torture, therefore, is no laughing matter.

References: AHA. “Top 10 Tips to Refresh Yourself. 24 March 2008. 05 December 2008.
Berk, R. 2001. “The active Ingredients in Humor.” Education Gerontology 26: 323-339.
Brain, M. "How Laughter Works." 01 April 2000. <> 05 December 2008.
Provine, R. 1996. “Laughter.” American Scientists 85: 38-47.
UMM. “Laughter is Good for your Heart.” 15 November 2000. <> 05 December 2008.

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