Strangely Charming: The Science of Laughter

Opinion by Jack Cackler
April 28, 2010, 12:34 a.m.

Strangely Charming: The Science of LaughterIf you were anywhere near campus this weekend, you probably noticed around 1,500 extra bodies chirping around. This year’s crop of ProFros was the most competitive and will probably be the largest class ever to attend Stanford, and their delighted laughter could be heard all over campus. Rather than spending the article wallowing in nostalgia or attempting to leave pearls of wisdom for future students, I’d instead like to spend this time illuminating some recent scientific discoveries related to laughter. While laughter has been around for years, there is still much to be understood as to why it occurs, what its function is and how it affects people. Believe it or not, researchers win grants to study these questions, and their results are no joke!

Laughter holds an elite status among most forms of communication in that it not only transcends culture, but also even transcends species. Many apes have exhibited laughter, and a variety of other animals like dogs, birds and even rats have exhibited behavior that probably serves the same purpose. While facial expressions depicting envy and desire are thought to be learned, babies as young as two weeks old have laughed. Science has long understood that laughter causes the prefrontal cortex of the brain to release endorphins, making a person feel happy following something humorous. More recent research has delved into the exact mechanism by which this works.

Dr. William Fry, a Stanford researcher, was in a group last year that published a paper of the effects of laughter on the cardiovascular system. His group documented an important pathway between laughter and cardiovascular health, after noticing that negative emotions were highly correlated with cardiac risk. The general structure of the pathway is that laughing stimulates the release of beta endorphins in the brain, which in turn bind with opiate receptors. These opiate receptors are commonly expressed on the surface of most veins and arteries in the body, and release nitric oxide (surprisingly, not to be confused with laughing gas, which is nitrous oxide), which relaxes and dilates blood vessels. America’s number one and three killers, heart attacks and strokes, often result from blood clots, so laughing daily, while not a panacea, could literally save lives.

A study published out of Emerson College this January instead looked at the social benefits of laughter. Dr. Phillip Glenn combed through fifteen different job interviews, and analyzed the social dynamics of laughing. Glenn had read studies that had shown that in most interactions between two people, there is one person that initiates laughter, and one that might laugh along, but will generally not begin laughing unprompted. Glenn theorized that people who initiate laughter are in a position of social power. He tested his hypothesis by reviewing recordings of 15 job interviews for college seniors. He found that when the interviewer laughed, the interviewee would often laugh along, but that the interviewees rarely initiate laughter. Laughter was shown to be a tool to build rapport, and interviewees who responded with laughter appropriately were more successful.

Another study performed by Ihtsham Haq from Wake Forest University printed in March used laughter as a medicinal tool to cure obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dr. Haq performed a clinical study on six patients, all of whom had had no success with drug or behavioral therapy. Electrodes were physically implanted into each subject’s brain, to aid an advanced medical procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation. Dr. Haq determined what regions of the brain could be stimulated to induce laughter, to which subjects reported feeling euphoric for around thirty seconds. The experiment was repeated several times over the course of two years, and all but one patient showed marked improvement. The experiment was significant in that it identified areas of the brain that induced laughter (which differed from patient to patient) and used laughter to treat a previously untreatable condition. While Dr. Haq’s team acknowledges that the limited sample size may hinder full scientific inference, the study certainly opens the door to an entirely new kind of treatment that could be applied to a host of problems.

It has been said for centuries that laughter is the best medicine, and modern research is proving that adage to be true. While it doesn’t take a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to know that laughing is enjoyable, it’s illuminating to know that the significant benefits laughter can provide both to health and social well-being are no laughing matter. With that in mind, those who fill their lives with laughter and joy really will get the last laugh.

Jack makes no apologies for ending a thought-provoking scientific article with cheap puns. Contact him at [email protected] for more laughs.

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