“Humanity has unquestionably one really effective weapon…laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” -Mark Twain
My childhood was far from perfect, but I did watch my parents deal with all sorts of issues using laughter. When a worry presented itself, we learned to laugh at ourselves.
I learned that laughter was the best way to start the day and the fastest way to end an argument.
Growing up with the name Razi Berry was fun but it also wasn’t easy. I was teased all the time and often adults would not believe me. I got hung up on when ordering pizza. I was sent to the principal’s office by substitute teachers. I was called all sorts of names. When I was entering high school I was terrified of what people would think of my name, especially when I decided to run for class president. I considered using my middle name, but my father urged me to have fun with it rather than be fearful of it. We devised a whole campaign around it.
I learned to let humor intercede.
I learned that humor is the shortest distance between two people, and that laughter is a universal language.
Later, during my senior year, and 4th time being elected class president, while other girls were voted prettiest, smartest, best dressed, I was voted best laugh.
It was an important compliment to really own, because sometimes when I really get going, I snort.
Charles Darwin once referred to humor as “tickling of the mind.” As it turns out, this “mind tickling” has some scientific basis behind it. It’s been discovered that when surgeons “tickle” the brain through electrical stimulation during surgery, several brain areas can induce laughing, including the amygdala, frontal cortex, and the fusiform gyrus.
Different Types of Laughter
Were you aware that there are actually different “types” of laughter? Laughter has deep evolutionary roots as a communication signal with high relevance for social interaction. It’s believed that laughter associated with social interaction evolved from the reflex-like tickling laughter that’s a sign of social bonding in primates. The different types of laughter are known as tickling laughter and “complex social laughter.”
Let’s take a deeper look at both.
Tickling laughter is believed to be more of a reflex-like behavior rather than an emotional response. This reflex behavior, already present in non-human primates, is believed to be grounded in the context of play and tickling that incites play behavior and social bonding.
Complex Social Laughter
In humans, laughter is a bit more complex than in that of non-human primates. Sure, laughter can be induced by tickling (something we’re all familiar with), but human laughter encompasses laughter types that are involved in more complex social functions than play and are known to have both negative and positive associations.
The expression “complex social laughter” refers to these laughter types being produced in a wide-range of social situations. Complex social laughter can be used in both a conscious and goal-oriented way to inspire and transform both the behaviors and attitudes of those we interact with socially.
The Functional Connectivity of Different Types of Laughter
Both types of laughter have been shown to modulate connectivity in the prefrontal cortex and the auditory association cortex. This functional connectivity could reflect a higher demand on the analysis of auditory attention, working memory, evaluation, and response selection processes.
Here’s something else, though. The higher the degree of self-perception, and others in complex social laughter types of laughing have been linked to increased connectivity between auditory association cortices, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and brain areas that are associated with understanding the mental state of one’s self and others.
No matter what type of laughter it may be, we do know one thing for sure: Laughter can be really good for your health. Humor and laughter have been shown to decrease stress and pain, increase immune function, and improve overall quality of life.
Taking a Deeper Look at Laughter
E.B. White once wrote an interesting analogy about humor: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
So, maybe humor can’t be reduced and analyzed strictly by science. It hasn’t yet been determined if there are laughter-initiating areas in the brain or not, but science has found that smiling initiates muscle activity that communicates with the brain and makes the brain assume humor is indeed occurring. It’s much like how faking a smile can make you feel better even when you don’t feel like smiling.
Like speech, laughter is unique to humans. After a baby is born, smiling develops within the first five weeks of life, which could be considered a hard-wired, innate response to external stimuli. Laughter begins around the fourth month of life and is thought to be a learned response. The younger the child is, however, the higher the possibility that laughter could be innate.
Were you aware that there are at least 16 different types of smiles? Interestingly enough, only six of them occur when we’re having a good time. The other types happen when we’re embarrassed, in pain, uncomfortable, miserable, and more.
The effects of laughter and humor on health still remains somewhat of a mystery, considering there have been few clinical studies that have approached the subject, especially when it comes to physiological outcomes. Even without much credibility from a scientific standpoint, however, laughter has long-been prescribed as a complementary therapeutic aide. There seems to be something very intuitive about laughing and that (in most cases), it simply feels good.
What laughter actually “does” must first be analyzed by the cognition that takes place in an individual that ends up producing a laugh. There’s first the mental process (such as the perception of amusing stimuli) that leads to a pleasant emotional state, and results in a laugh.
Everyone, however, reacts to humor differently, depending on what kind of neural circuitry is in place that an individual readily uses. This could depend on previous experiences they’ve had or could have to do with their core personality. Here, humor is the stimulus, and laughter is the physiological response.
What’s Happening in the Body and Brain When We Experience Laughter
We all know laughter feels good.
What exactly is happening in the body and mind when we laugh, though?
For one, humor stimulates several organs throughout the body. It increases oxygen intake, which stimulates the heart, lungs, and muscles, all while increasing endorphin transmission in the brain.
For another, laughter has shown to help stimulate circulation. This is why a good laugh can be so amazing for relieving tension. Adverse thoughts can transform into chemical reactions that can bring the physiological effect of stress directly to your immune system. Positive thoughts, on the other hand, help keep stress hormones at bay through the release of neuropeptides.
Heard any good jokes lately?
Humor has been shown to reduce stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which can, in turn, help protect endocrine, immune, and cardiovascular system function.
The ability of humor to reduce stress hormones is seen first-hand in our personal lives when we learn that a joke can help raise someone’s spirits and alleviate some the tension they might be experiencing.
The term “psychoneuroimmunology” (PNI) refers to the interaction between the nervous system and immune system that can lead to inevitable health consequences. The PNI theory about laughter states that humor has the ability to affect health through immunoenhancement. PNI research has also looked at NK cytotoxicity as an indicator of immune system functionality when humor is present.
Proof of Immune Protection in Humor: Salivary Immunoglobin and NKs
Natural killer (NK) cells are a part of the immune system that have a primary function of eliminating abnormal cells. They are an innate component of immune function that play a major role in the host-rejection of both tumors and virally infected cells.
Loss of the exocytic activity (activity that takes place outside of the cell involved in secretion or exertion) of NK cells can have significant immunological consequences. While more clinical research is needed, three out of four studies that have conducted research on the effects of laughter on health have indicated that humorous stimulus or laughter can temporarily increase NK cell activity.
Aside from research on NK cell activity and laughter, there have also been studies of immunoglobins and how laughter and humor may affect the immune system. Immunoglobins are antibodies responsible for fighting off harmful invaders in the body. Having too few immunoglobins is believed to be something that could yield infections within the body.
One study found that fighting infectious disease increased after a subject viewed a humorous video compared with a didactic video. Additionally, those with implemented coping skills that used humor had higher IgA concentrations. Higher secretion rates of IgA have been found to be associated with a decreased risk of death from cancer, specifically non-lung cancer. Higher secretion rates of IgA are also found to decrease the risk of death from respiratory disease.
Lack of Laughter and Adrenal Fatigue
Your immune and nervous system are in constant communication with one another. The immune system receives messages from the brain and neuroendocrine system through the autonomic nervous system and various hormones. Information is then sent back to the brain via cytokines, which creates a regulatory feedback loop.
In a lab setting, the injection of cytokines has shown to induce symptoms of depression. The deficiency of cytokine receptors, therefore, has shown to be connected to specific debilitating immunodeficiency disorders and states such as schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and more.
The central role of cytokines is to aid in cellular communication in immune response, as well as direct the correct cells towards areas of trauma inflammation, or infection. The hormones involved in stress are the ones that work for your sympathetic nervous system in “fight or flight” situations. The brain can send out messages to adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, norepinephrine, or cortisol, leading to what is commonly referred to as “adrenal fatigue.”
Laughter Really is “The Best Medicine”
While humor and health are somewhat tentative fields together in science, laughter truly does seem to be one of “nature’s greatest medicines.” While the reason people laugh may be trivial, in all our complexity alongside other organisms, have we developed a form of humor?
Let yourself allow more laughter into your life. The health implications of a good laugh, after all, reach far and wide, like a big smile.
Interested in learning more about how things like laughter can improve your health? Please join my Facebook group, Love is Medicine, where we explore the science of our emotions, intuition, and relationships and how it affects ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Love truly is medicine. I invite you to join me and learn more.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Razi Berry is the founder and publisher of the journal Naturopathic Doctor News & Review that has been in print since 2005 and the premier consumer-faced website of naturopathic medicine, NaturalPath. She is the host of The Natural Cancer Prevention Summit and The Heart Revolution-Heal, Empower and Follow Your Heart, and the popular 10 week Sugar Free Summer program. From a near death experience as a young girl that healed her failing heart, to later overcoming infertility and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia through naturopathic medicine, Razi has lived the mind/body healing paradigm. Her projects uniquely capture the tradition and philosophy of naturopathy: The healing power of nature, the vital life force in every living thing and the undeniable role that science and mind/body medicine have in creating health and overcoming dis-ease. Follow Razi on Facebook at Razi Berry and join us at Love is Medicine to explore the convergence of love and health.