Why Your Brain Loves To Laugh

Who doesn’t love a good laugh?

We all do and for good reason. There aren’t too many other things that you can do that feel good and are good for you at the same time.

Laughing is not just a fun way to kill time. It has neuropsychological benefits, including improving your mood, exercising your brain, decreasing pain, and strengthening your immune system and bonds with people with which you share a giggle.

What Laughter Looks Like In Your Brain

The physiological study of laughter even has its own name, gelotology. Through experiments mapping the electrical activity of laughing brains, researchers have determined that the production of laughter involves many regions of the brain. Within four-tenths of a second of exposure to something potentially funny, an electrical wave moves through the cerebral cortex, the largest part of the brain. If the wave took a negative charge, laughter resulted. If it kept a positive charge, no response was expressed.

The limbic system, an ancient collection of brain structures located deep within the brain primarily involved in emotional and motivational behaviors, seems to be responsible for laughter. Other studies revealed that when brains processed verbal jokes, areas essential to learning and understanding were activated, giving your brain a workout.

A good laugh also causes a chemical reaction that instantly elevates your mood, reduces pain and stress, and boosts your immune system (suppressed by both stress and pain). Research has traced this activity to a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which rewards behaviors such as cocaine use and sex by releasing dopamine, a natural opiate.

What’s So Funny?

Laughter is triggered when you find something humorous. According to the article, How Laughter Works, there are three traditional theories about what your brain finds funny:

  • The incongruity theory suggests that humor­ arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together, like when you expect one outcome and another happens. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies are already anticipating what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion and is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears. We now have new emotions, backing up a different line of thought. In other words, we experience two sets of incompatible thoughts and emotions simultaneously. We experience this incongruity between the different parts of the joke as humorous.
  • The superiority theory comes into play when we laugh at jokes that focus on someone else’s mistakes, stupidity or misfortune. We feel superior to this person, experience a certain detachment from the situation and so are able to laugh at it.
  • The relief theory is the basis for a device movie-makers have used effectively for a long time. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, the director uses comic relief at just the right times. He builds up the tension or suspense as much as possible and then breaks it down slightly with a side comment, enabling the viewer to relieve himself of pent-up emotion, just so the movie can build it up again! Similarly, an actual story or situation creates tension within us. As we try to cope with two sets of emotions and thoughts, we need a release and laughter is the way of cleansing our system of the built-up tension and incongruity. (According to Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, humor, especially dark humor, can help workers cope with stressful situations. “The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress,” she says.)

The Benefits Of Laughter For Your Brain And Body

1. Laughter releases feel-good endorphins into your system, which actually decreases pain and significantly increases pain thresholds.

2. Laughter can help protect your heart by increasing blood flow and improving the function of blood vessels.

3. Laughter relaxes your whole body for up to 45 minutes after a good laugh.

4. Laughter lowers blood pressure and stress levels.

5. Laughter can increase intimacy and improve relationships.

6. Laughter can reduce anxietystress, and depression.

7. Laughter increases the number of T-cells in your body and boosts your immune system.

How To Use Laughter To Improve Your Mental Health

The use of humor has proven effective in formal therapies for serious mental conditions. Other therapeutic practices incorporating laughter have popped up over the last decade, like laughter yoga. You can include laughter in your daily mental health routine to help ward off depression and stay balanced or just spontaneously whenever your mood needs a lift. Some ways to do that are:

Keep an eye out for the silly side of life.

Try to intentionally notice the silly, unexpected, or funny stuff in your daily life. Savor it, think about it and commit it to memory for when you need a laugh in the future. The most recent time I can remember laughing really hard – I mean tears-rolling-down-my-cheeks-hard – was when my son and I were plunging a stopped up toilet. Who knew those circumstances could be a side splitter?

Reframe unpleasant situations with humor.

Try to see the humor in an otherwise unpleasant or embarrassing situation. So, you knocked over your wine glass with an overly demonstrative hand gesture on a first-date dinner (which I totally would do.) Well, at least you made an impression! Or, maybe you farted in yoga class. Oops. You’re not the first one to ever do that and isn’t it just a little bit funny?

Tickle yourself.

Unfortunately, you can’t physically tickle yourself. Research shows that your brain needs tension and surprise for tickling to work — which you obviously don’t have when you try to do it yourself. Laughter is also almost impossible to control consciously. It’s very hard to laugh on command. You can, however, tickle your own funny bone by watching your favorite funny movies, videos, or television shows.

One of my favorites go-to clips that never fails to make me laugh out loud is:

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  • I think it was Emile Coue who told the story of the woman who was ill and turned to laughter therapy for help. She would take herself off every day, find somewhere quiet and begin to laugh and even though she wasn’t laughing at anything in particular, eventually it turned her health and her life around.

    So keeping our eyes open for the silly side of life sounds like good therapy for what ails us Debbie. Great advice.

    • I had not heard that one, Elle. I don’t doubt it at all. Laughter is so healing for almost everything we encounter in this life. Remembering to find that humor is the hard part, but totally doable.

  • Humor is subjective, but one thing just about everyone finds funny is other people laughing — especially laughing at “nothing”! Google “people laughing on the subway” and you’ll find some gems. I’m giggling just thinking about a few I’ve seen. 🙂

  • I love using laughter therapy. Especially when we are not feeling great, watching a comedy can help. I enjoy shows that make me laugh anytime over horror or violence. I like the suggestion of learning how to laugh at ourselves. We have to let go about feeling sensitive or embarrassed. It is when we reach a level of self-acceptance and knowing that everyone makes silly mistakes that we give ourselves the latitude.

    • Yes, Evelyn. Life gets much easier and fun when we can laugh at ourselves.

  • Laughter is the perfect medicine for people, especially when you are feeling stressed or challenged. I love comedies that just make me laugh and take me away from my world for a few minutes. Laughter a good way to not take ourselves so seriously and connect with others. Good to know that it is helpful for the brain as well. Thank you Debbie!

    • I love a good comedy too…. and a good joke, and a funny video. Laughing is just plain and does help me feel better.

  • Tickling self doesn’t work well for me. Research states that we laugh when tickled out of shock (since we don’t expect it). While tickling ourselves, our mind expects what’s about to happen 🙂

    Great to hear that laughing is a good workout for the brain. I watch cartoons (or Adam Sandler movies) on TV, and watch the occasional video on social media. Being surrounded by witty friends helps too.

    Off to share this, Debbie 🙂

    • Vishal,

      As it explained in the post, no one can physically tickle themselves. As you say, it requires surprise. However, we can tickle our minds with silliness (which is what I meant.). Adam Sandler is funny, and I love love love being around people who make me laugh.

      Thanks! 🙂

  • Allanah Hunt

    A good laugh every day drives away anxiety and helps me to stay focused and positive. Great reminder <3

  • Love it yes as they say laughter is the best medicine, great benefits you have shared thank you xx

  • So needed to read this an absorb it right now. Laughter is SO needed.
    xoxo, Z~

  • robert

    Love the go-to clip!

    • Me too, Robert. You must have a strange sense of humor, like me. It never fails to make me laugh out loud. My kids don’t think it’s funny at all.

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