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?