Health

Thursday 24 July 2014

Is laughter really the best medicine?

Humour is taken so seriously, there's now a group dedicated to its study

After a very busy weekend, I sat down last night and had a comedy-fest. In succession, I watched six recorded episodes of ' The Big Bang Theory' (in my opinion the world's most clever and funny sitcom) followed by four Mario Rosenstock shows, the hilarious Irish mimic.

After this indulgence, I had difficulty restraining my laughter: tears were streaming down my face and my sides ached. As the cares of the day slipped away, exhaustion led to a delicious night's sleep.

Laughter has been discussed by philosophers, anthropologists, behavioural neuroscientists and psychologists in recent decades. The scientific study of laughter, called gelotology, is a relatively new area of investigation. It tells us that the average adult laughs about 20-30 times per day and children do so ten times more frequently.

A study by Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, known as 'The Giggle Twin study' suggests the tendency to laugh has a genetic component. We also know laughing is contagious because it frequently stimulates others to follow suit by triggering neural circuits in the brain to generate even more laughter. There seems to be agreement that it is a social signal and Mr Provine shows that we are more likely to laugh when we are with others than on our own.

Even the laughter inducing properties of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) are reduced when used alone. Laughter is an indicator that we are relaxed, comfortable and at ease and, according to researchers, the more laughter there is – the greater the bonding. Those who sit on committees know that one witty person can transform its ambience from one of joyless boredom to light hearted camaraderie.

Laughter can also change the emotional temperature of the room and a timely joke can often reduce tension in a difficult situation.

The changes in the brain during laughter are now also being explored. We have learnt that several areas of the brain are activated. The left side of the forebrain analyses the words while the right side of the cortex becomes active if we "get" the joke. The frontal lobe and limbic system are also stimulated as these generate emotional feelings while activity in the motor cortex produces the physical movements associated with laughter. The hypothalamus is particularly active when we engage in uncontrollable guffaws.

As to what we find funny, various explanations for differences are offered. One difference relates to age, since children's humour (surprises, slapstick) differs from that of adolescents, who are stimulated by jokes about sex and authority figures. Adults, on the other hand, have more subtle and nuanced humour with the appeal of a joke being determined by culture, personal attitudes, intelligence and experience of life.

It is also recognised that "dark humour" makes a particularly positive contribution to wellbeing by giving workers who deal with suffering, pain and such like, a mental break, allowing detachment and objectivity.

There is now a body of evidence developing around the benefits to health. Some of this is due to the reduction in stress hormones that laughter induces.

This in turn boosts the immune system. Blood flow is increased and platelets, the blood cells involved in clotting, become less sticky while our brain produces endorphines, neurochemicals that increase feelings of wellbeing.

Some even claim that the effect of laughter on various muscles in the body is analogous to a workout, hence the feeling of pleasant exhaustion afterwards. And laughter can also represent the harmless expression of pent-up and destructive emotions such as fear, anger, tension, despondency.

Humour is taken so seriously, there is now a group dedicated to its study, the International Society for Humour Studies.

So, pick your shows and your comedians, watch them on TV or live. Laughing may not prevent mental illness but, for those who are stressed or unhappy, laughter may indeed be the best medicine.

Health & Living

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