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Can You Make Yourself Laugh

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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Can You Make Yourself Laugh

Elissa Seto

People often say that laughter is the best medicine. However, how could someone administer laughter to oneself? Most people define laughter as a response to something funny or humorous. What most people do not realize, though, is the complexity that lies behind people's ability to laugh. Laughter has two aspects to it: the neurological part, and the physical part that produces sounds and gestures (4). There are various stimulants that make people laugh, but all of the stimulants cause the same effect in the parts of the brain that control laughter. However, in most cases, laughter can only be stimulated from an external source. Often people cannot simply make themselves laugh, similar to how people cannot tickle themselves. Primarily examining the neurological aspect can explain why that is.

Laughing is a complicated matter. There are fifteen facial muscles involved in laughing. The larynx and epiglottis of the respiratory system also play a vital role in making the gasping noises that are associated with laughter. If someone laughs hard enough, they may also form tears (4). What is particularly interesting is the cause of these actions. Laughter is stimulated through many parts of the brain. One of the main parts is the frontal lobe, one of the brain's largest regions and it controls one's emotional reactions. Activity is also observed in the cerebral cortex, which analyzes the structure of the humor and then helps the brain understand the humor, occipital lobe, which processes visual signals, and the motor sections of the brain, which stimulates the actual physical response of laughter (4). This complex process sets laughter apart from any other emotional response. Other emotions are usually concentrated to activity in a specific area of the brain (4).

A lot of recent research has been conducted to study the stimuli of laughter. In 1998, Nature magazine published a paper that studied how electric stimulation caused laughter in a 16 year-old girl. Researchers were trying to map her brain, because she was having epileptic seizures (5). They were able to map an area in her left superior frontal gyrus that measured about 2 cm x 2 cm that always caused laughter when it was stimulated with an electric current (2). During the test, they would have her do various activities, such as reading a story, naming objects, and hand movements. Whenever her superior frontal gyrus was stimulated, she would laugh and attribute the laughter to the activity she was doing (2). Regardless of what the activity was, she thought it was funny because of that stimulus. Therefore, any kind of stimulus in that region of her brain made her laugh, because they all followed the same pathway.

A similar conclusion was made when a group of neuroscientists did a study on laughter using episodes of Seinfeld, a comedy sitcom, and The Simpsons, a cartoon show (1). There are two main differences in the show. One is that Seinfeld uses live characters, while The Simpsons uses animation. Another difference is that Seinfeld uses a laugh track, which is a recording of people laughing that is played during funny parts of the show. The Simpsons does not use one. Using a magnetic resonance imaging machine, researchers found that both shows set off the same nerve pathway in their brains (1). The study also found that different parts of the brain respond to different parts of a joke. When a participant saw something funny, the posterior temporal cortex and the inferior frontal cortex showed signs of activity, and a few seconds later, when the person responded to the joke, the insula and the amygdale showed activity (1).

Laughter can also be seen as contagious, which is likely one of the reasons why shows using live characters also use a laugh track. One is more likely to laugh when other people are laughing (6). In a study done by Robert Provine, people who are by themselves are 30 times less likely to laugh than if they were in a social situation (6). Laughter can be contagious. In his laughter studies, Provine had a group of undergraduate psychology students listen to a toy called a laugh box that played the sound of laughter for 18 seconds. Provine played the laugh box ten times, and had students report how they felt to the laughter. With the first time the laugh box was played, half the students laughed, and 90 percent of them smiled at the least (6). However, by the tenth trial, only 3 of the 128 students laughed at the laugh box (6). Hearing and seeing the other students laugh made the laugh box seem funny. It was the combined stimulus of the laugh box and the laughter of other students that evoked continued laughter among the group. However, students could only take so much of the same stimuli. By the tenth trial, most of the students had found the laugh box obnoxious (6).

All of these studies have helped formulate the following deductions. One deduction is that there must be a stimulus in order for laughter to occur. Another is that laughter requires activity in multiple lobes of the brain. The other is one that can be deduced from the conclusions of those studies: laughter must involve some sort of element of surprise. In Provine's study using the laugh box, after the element of surprise was removed, the students found the box annoying. Using an example of a joke, the audience does not expect the outcome of the joke, and that is a reason that makes it funny. In a given situation, when the outcome is unpredictable, the audience is stimulated with the surprise, causing laughter. This is one of the possible reasons as to why people cannot tickle themselves. Some scientists believe that laughing is a built-in reflex to the stimulation on one's skin, yet people cannot tickle themselves (5). Although the signal sent from one's skin to their spinal cord and brain should be the same as when someone else tickles that person, the effect has changed, because there is no tension or surprise (5). One's brain is aware that the stimulation is going to happen, so the action is expected.

Laughter is a topic that should continue to be researched. As the recent studies have shown, laughter is an effect of an external stimulus that is networked through various parts of the brain. Future studies can be done in order to understand how people who have suffered strokes can have episodes of uncontrollable laughter or have lost their ability to laugh completely (3). Understand the brain's response to humor can also help researchers understand the mental illnesses and depression (3). Science has already discovered that certain parts of the brain control specific functions of the body. Laughter, being that it activates many parts, can be an encompassing topic of study that helps understand the relationship between the various lobes and regions.



1) Brain's Funny Bone , a study about laughter using television

2) Electric Current Stimulates Laughter , a scientific paper from Nature magazine

3) Finding the Brain's Funny Bone , a study about laughter using MRI scans

4) How laughter works , an explanation for the mechanism of laughter

5) Neuroscience for Kids – Laughter and the Brain , an overview of laughter

6) Provine Laughter , a groundbreaking in-depth study on laughter



Comments made prior to 2007

Where can I find the laugh box as mentioned in the paper? I saw one 27 years ago. I have been trying to find one and buy it. Any thoughts? Thanks ... John, 14 March 2006



Hi I have been doing some research on laughing because in the past year i have noticed that I haven't been laughing as much. It is very uncomfortable to have a humorus conversation with someone and not be able to laugh with the other person. But the very few times i do laugh i feel very relieved and relaxed, it takes such load off. Being a Jr. in high shcool its difficult to communicate and conect with people with out lightening up and laughing. I just wish i could find a way to luagh more, yet i don't want to fake it ... Wes, 9 November 2006


Henry Nwachuku's picture


This article helped me identify something about laughter that I've been overlooking my whole life. It is that laughter happens out of a surprise. I think with this awareness, I will be better equipped to laugh and to make others laugh. SURPRISE!!!!....Thank you.

Short JOkea's picture

Good efforts !

It is really a beautiful post on laughter. Really wonderful incidents are shown on the stimuli of laughter. Of course laughter is contagious and we laugh when others are also laughing. This technique is often used in t.v. shows and live programs.