When we smile, fake or real, the contractions of the facial muscles slightly distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This slight distortion in their shape leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and increases in the release of dopamine (Iwase et al., 2002, Neuroimage; 17:758). As a result, walking around all day with a smile on your face will bias your mood to be happier. Not only will you be happier but your smile might spontaneously induce the release of dopamine in someone else's brain—now that truly demonstrates the power of a smile.In a new article from The American Scholar, Dr. Richard Restak gives anecdotal and neurobiological explanations for how and why laughter is good for us.
When was the last you laughed, really, really laughed, until tears flow and your abs hurt?
~ Richard Restak is a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist, and the author of 20 books about the brain, including The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind (with puzzles by Scott Kim). He is also a former advisor to the school of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
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Can humor help us better understand the most complex and enigmatic organ in the human body?By Richard Restak
Photo by Nosha
In my neuropsychiatric practice, I often use cartoons and jokes to measure a patient’s neurologic and psychiatric well-being. I start off with a standard illustration called “The Cookie Theft.” It depicts a boy, precariously balanced on a stool, pilfering cookies from a kitchen cabinet as his sister eggs him on, while their absentminded mother stands drying a plate, oblivious to the water overflowing from the sink onto the floor. Though not really a cartoon—in that nothing terribly funny is taking place—it allows me to begin assessing various things: abstraction ability, empathy, powers of observation and description, as well as sense of humor. I am especially curious to see how patients process the image, whether they perceive only a portion of it or take it in as a whole. Some people notice only the boy, others only the mother.
Next, I show a series of cartoons, starting with examples from a newspaper comics page and working up to more sophisticated drawings from The New Yorker. I then ask for an explanation of what’s going on in each of them. Over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t fake an understanding of a cartoon; you either get it or you don’t.
Finally, I tell a few jokes set out in increasing levels of subtlety and complexity. Patients don’t have to find the jokes funny (humor is too heterogeneous for that), but they should be able to explain why other people might find them funny. Why am I interested in my patients’ ability to appreciate humor? Because humor impairment may point to operational problems at various levels of brain functioning.
Charles Darwin referred to humor as “a tickling of the mind.” We speak of being “tickled pink” at a funny joke, and tickling often leads to laughter, so the analogy is apt. At the physiological level, humor reduces levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and is thought to enhance our immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems. Laughter also provides a workout for the muscles of the diaphragm, abdomen, and face. A joke can raise our spirits, or ease our tension. If we’re able to laugh during a stressful situation, we can put psychological distance between ourselves and the stress. Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review for more than 30 years, chronicled in his 1979 bestselling book, Anatomy of an Illness, how he attempted to cure himself of a mysterious and rapidly progressive inflammatory illness of the spine by engaging in hours-long laughing sessions while watching Marx Brothers films and reruns of the then-popular Candid Camera. Though Cousins’s claims could not be scientifically confirmed, even the most skeptical researchers agree that humor provides an antidote to some emotions widely recognized to be associated with illness—for example, the feelings of rage and fear that can precipitate a heart attack.
Though I wouldn’t take a position on whether laughter has universally salutary benefits, many laughter associations and workshops around the world—common most notably in India and Sweden—do just that. Their goal is to promote good health via the therapeutic properties of laughter. LaughterWorks, which bills itself as “Australia’s leading laughter leaders,” arranges seminars and workshops for various groups, as well as half-hour sessions of “laughing, breathing and gentle exercise, under the guidance of one of our qualified laughers.”
A Swedish friend described a laughter-inducing exercise involving two people sitting across from each other. When one begins to laugh, the other soon starts laughing, too. Not long ago, my friend and I decided to try this ourselves. She sat facing me, and after a few awkward moments (at least on my part) spent staring silently at each other, she began laughing. I wasn’t sure how to respond. But a few moments later I found myself laughing, even though nothing funny was said. I must admit that I felt better after our laughter exercise. But why?
In the weeks that followed, as I searched for an explanation, I was invited to participate in a discussion with three popular comedians—Robert Kelly, Dan Naturman, and Kristin Montella—at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. The four of us sat at the famous Comedy Table, reserved for professional comedians, and spent almost two hours engaging in some high-speed repartee concerning the interaction between comedians and their audiences. The comedians, naturally curious about the presence of a “brain doctor” in their midst, may not have known that the club’s owner, Noam Dworman, had read my books and has long maintained a lively interest in neuroscience.
Soon after, I sat on a panel at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, where I joined New Yorker cartoonists Zach Kanin, Paul Noth, and David Sipress to explore the question of why people find cartoons funny. We discussed how humor, whether conveyed by joke or cartoon, has both a subjective component (exhilaration or mirth) and its physical expression (smiling or laughing). One can exist without the other: we may find a risqué joke amusing but withhold a smile if we happen to be in polite company. We may also laugh nervously when we’re made to feel uncomfortable. We laugh when we hear others laugh—as I experienced with my Swedish friend (indeed, this phenomenon of contagious laughter is why laugh tracks are used in situation comedies). Laughter can even be induced chemically, with laughing gas, or via electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.
Recently, scientists have begun conducting research into the neurological processes underpinning mirth and laughter. I would not suggest that neuroscience can “explain” humor or provide the reason why we laugh at certain jokes or cartoons and not at others. Trying to parse humor, in any case, can be a self-defeating exercise. As E. B. White once wrote, “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.” Still, neuroscience can provide some useful insights into what happens when we find a joke or cartoon funny. Ultimately, it isn’t just humor that we seek to better understand, but rather, that most complex and elusive of organs: the human brain.
The brain has no humor “center.” Humor is associated with—note that I didn’t say “caused by,” à la White’s frog dissection analogy—brain networks involving the temporal and frontal lobes in the cerebral cortex. Located near the top of the brain, these cortical areas are related to speech, general information, and the appreciation of contradiction and illogicality. Obviously we can’t appreciate a joke told in a language we can’t speak, or a cartoon that relies heavily on cultural norms or information foreign to us. Within these cortical areas the joke or cartoon is parsed.
All humor involves playing with what linguists call scripts (also referred to as frames). Basically, scripts are hypotheses about the world and how it works based on our previous life experiences. Consider what happens when a friend suggests meeting at a restaurant. Instantaneously our brains configure a scenario involving waiters or waitresses, menus, a sequence of eatables set out in order from appetizer to dessert, followed by a bill and the computation of a tip. This process, highly compressed and applicable to almost any kind of restaurant, works largely outside conscious awareness. And because our scripts are so generalized and compressed, we tend to make unwarranted assumptions based on them. Humor takes advantage of this tendency. Consider, for example, almost any joke from stand-up comedian Steven Wright, known for his ironic, deadpan delivery:
—I saw a bank that said “24 Hour Banking,” but I didn’t have that much time.In each of these examples, everyday activities are given a different spin by forcing the listener to modify standard scripts about them. Indeed, the process of reacting to and appreciating humor begins with the activation of a script in the brain’s temporal lobes.
—I bought some batteries, but they weren’t included. So I had to buy them again.
—I washed a sock. Then I put it in the dryer. When I took it out it was gone.
—I went into a store and asked the clerk if there was anything I could put under my coasters. He asked why I wanted to do that. I told him I wanted to make sure my coasters weren’t scratching my table.