The Best Medicine

All she said was, "Nice to meet you."

All she said was, “Nice to meet you.”

According to the old proverb, laughter is the best medicine.  The pharmaceutical industry would dutifully add that side effects of laughter may include dizziness, shortness of breath, increase in blood pressure, and flatulence; if a laugh lasts longer than four hours consult your physician immediately.

OK, they haven’t gone quite that far yet, but scientists actually are studying the effects of laughter.  The objective is to identify the chemical reactions that laughter causes in the brain, so that drugs can be developed that would simulate its effects, thereby combating depression and anxiety.

In their quest to someday produce a laughter pill, scientists have done all sorts of studies; one of the more intriguing ones, headed by Dr. Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University, reveals that rats laugh when they are tickled.  But you already knew that, right?  It occurs to me that a lab rat would probably prefer to be in a tickling experiment than a study determining the effects of inhaling toxic waste.

Anyway, the Mayo Clinic website says that “laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air… and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.”  (Endorphins, of course, are the feel-good neurotransmitters.)  The Mayo Clinic article goes on to say that “laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.”

Having devoted my career to trying to provoke laughter in my fellow human beings, I was feeling sort of… I don’t know, philanthropic.  But then I read a summary of some research done by Dr. Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist who wrote a book called Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

Provine told WebMD that “Most laughter is not in response to jokes or humor.”  One of his studies involved eavesdropping on conversations in public places; he and his associates determined that only a small fraction of laughs were the result of jokes or clever remarks.  Over 80% of the lines that got laughs were banalities like “I’ll see you guys later.”

This comes as devastating news to comedy writers, who stay up late pitching jokes and earnestly debating whether the punch line is funnier with the word “heifer” or “wildebeest”.  (Ultimately, that joke was rejected altogether.)   If Provine is correct, our life’s work has been for naught.

“Laughter is above all else a social thing,” he says.  “The requirement for laughter is another person.”  In other words, you’re more inclined to laugh when someone else around you is laughing, and before you know it, the whole darn cell block is giggling without really knowing why.

It seems we comedy writers wasted a lot of time coming up with funny lines for the actors to say when we could have just sent them up into the theater seats to literally tickle the audience members.

Even without scientific evidence, though, I’m convinced that laughter does indeed have beneficial effects, and that when someone else is laughing, we are inclined to join them.  So now maybe the scientists need to turn their attention to this vexing question:  How can laughter be medicine if it’s contagious?

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6 responses to “The Best Medicine

  1. From Wikipedia re: Norman Cousin’s fight against ankylosing spondylitis or possibly reactive arthritis detailed in “Anatomy of an Illness”

    Told that he had little chance of surviving, Cousins developed a recovery program incorporating megadoses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he reported. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”

    I certainly believe that laughter is therapeutic, albeit not the mean laughter generated by derogatory or racist jokes. I applaud anyone, comedy writers included that can induce a good laugh.

  2. I can’t wait to hear about the Provine book. Was it funny? And who were these judges who decided whether or not a laugh inducing line was intended to be funny? Did they understand anything about delivery? I’m imagining the Monty Python troupe in lab coats.

    • I don’t know much about the methodology used in the study that concluded that most of what gets laughed at isn’t funny. However, I did see video of the rat experiment, and it appeared that they were genuinely, uh, tickled. Rat laughter is at such a high frequency that special sound equipment had to be used to convert the pitch into human hearing range. Frankly, they sounded drunk.

  3. Norman Cousins understood the power of laughter to transcend pain and facilitate healing. Not only is laughter medicinal, but it also works wonders on the challenging nature of language acquisition. In one of my adult ESL classes, my students learn English through sitcoms. I front load the day’s episode with vocabulary and thematic connections, we watch the episode with subtitles, then the students (and I) write dialogue inspired by the episode. I call it “pain-free” learning.

    • That sounds like a very creative approach to teaching English. One of the challenges of learning another language is the colloquial expressions one encounters, and sitcoms tend to have lots of them. Good for you for finding ways to keep your students engaged and interested!

  4. My old college classmate Hank Cetola did some pioneering research in the psychology of comedy. In this study, he determined that audience members find a stand-up routine funnier if it involves something that’s happened to them. May explain why the subjects of those “roasts” are big laughers.

    http://www.degruyter.com/dg/viewarticle/j$002fhumr.1988.1.issue-3$002fhumr.1988.1.3.245$002fhumr.1988.1.3.245.xml;jsessionid=A7BECFFC9879EE01AEEEBC11F0036333

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