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The Science of Laughter

December 24, 2019
Published in: Mental Health

Female friends laughing

Why exactly do we laugh? The easiest answer is “because something is funny…” but how true is that, actually? Think about the last time you laughed with your boss—was it because they dropped a huge knee-slapper or was it a little forced? Alternatively, think about the last time you re-watched your favorite sitcom. You may inherently know a joke is funny, but sitting on your couch in a room by yourself, you may not even crack a smile. Sit on that same couch re-watching that same episode with a friend, however, and you might find yourself reduced to a helpless pile of giggles. For as common as it happens—most of us laugh about 17 times per day—there’s very little we understand about what actually causes us to laugh. Today, we will examine some of the reasons why we laugh, what is actually occurring in our body when we do, and how these things can benefit our mental and physical health.

Knock Knock, Who’s There?

Before we can really examine the science behind laughter, we will first have to qualify exactly what type of laughter that we’re looking at. Think about it—in some of the examples above, are you really laughing the same way at your boss’s joke as you are at your favorite television show?

One study on the subject broke down the kinds of laughter into five categories: spontaneous laughter, the kind inspired by a good joke or positive emotions; simulated laughter, the kind we force out at a cocktail party; stimulated laughter, such as induced by tickling; induced laughter, typically brought on by drugs or alcohol; and pathological laughter, which is usually triggered by temporary or permanent neurological disorders.

Coworkers looking at a laptop and laughingFor the purposes of this post, we will largely be focusing on spontaneous laughter, but if you want to continue looking into other varieties of laughter, we’d recommend looking into the fascinating story of the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962.

So what happened next was…

When we experience something funny, several parts of our brain come together to get in on the act, lighting up in a regular electrical pattern across the cerebral cortex. First, the left side of the cortex becomes active, analyzing the words of the joke, followed by the frontal lobe, which is responsible for our emotional response. Next, the right side of the cortex lights up, carrying out the thought necessary to “get” the joke. After that, the sensory processing area of the occipital lobe (where we process visual signals) light up, followed finally by the motor sections of our brains, which induces the actual physical response of “laughing.” This entire electrical journey occurs in less than four-tenths of a second.

A Man and a Woman Walk into a Bar

That’s how laughter is occurring throughout the brain, but what effects does it have on the body—is it really the “best medicine?” What sort of positive effects does that electrical journey have?

Quite a few, actually. First, a recent study examined how endorphins—those feel-good chemicals in our brains released by things like opioid use—are released when we laugh, causing a general sense of euphoria. This effect was increased when it occurred as part of a group, which helps to explain why we tend to laugh more in a crowd then by ourselves. Releasing endorphins in groups promotes a sense of togetherness and safety. That means when we walk into a room full of people laughing, our brains may begin laughing as well through an unconscious desire to be a part of the safe social group.

Another study showed that laughing can be good for relationships. Shared laughter between couples can be an indicator of how healthy the relationship is overall.

There are other less-understood benefits of laughter, as well. Laughter is certainly an energetic exercise - although how beneficial it is in comparison to regular aerobic exercise is up to some question. Laughter is also found to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Why this occurs is also not widely understood, but it does mean it’s likely laughter has a positive impact on our hearts and our arthritis.

The Punchline

While laughter may not necessarily be the best medicine when it comes to eradicating disease, it can have several positive effects on your body, your mental well-being, and the mental well-being of those in your immediate proximity. It may never be a major prescription, but it’s rarely a bad idea. We’ve only just scratched the surface here on why laughter occurs and what it can do for your body.