Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

A Serious Look at Laughter

SerendipUpdate's picture

Biology 103
2001 Second Web Report
On Serendip

A Serious Look at Laughter

Tua Chaudhuri

Think of a funny joke. Any one will do. Smile. Let the corners of your mouth turn up. Giggle. Chortle. Chuckle. And slowly build up into a loud guffaw. How do you feel? Refreshed? Exhilarated? According to recent studies done by neuroscientists and psychologists, as well as the newest fads in holistic medicine, laughter is the greatest panacea yet discovered. It has been credited with everything from lowering blood pressure and reducing chances of heart attacks and strokes to increasing your intelligence and capabilities to retain and process information. But what exactly is laughter in biological terms, why does it produce such effects on the way the human body functions, and why are these positive effects surfacing only now? I decided to join the laugh track and find out just what was so funny.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines laughter as "rhythmic, vocalized expiratory and involuntary actions." According to Derk's test, where subjects were hooked up to an electroencephalograph, and then exposed to humorous material, laughter resulted when a negatively charged electrical impulse traveled through the cerebral cortex (2). There are three basic brain functions that contribute to our ability to laugh: cognition, emotion, and motion. The interesting thing about laughter is that, unlike most of the other emotions, it is created by the functions from several parts of the brain. Although most of the activity is in the frontal lobe, the center of emotional activity, there are also many electrical impulses in the occipital lobe or the motion center of the brain (2). The limbic system of the brain is where most of the functions essential to a living organism are simulated. Also, when laughing people tend to gesture with their limbs and shake in abdominal regions. Unlike anything else in human behavior, laughter is produced by the active participation of almost the entire body. This could possibly be a reason why it is attributed with so many effects on the health of the body.

Laughter is difficult to study because it does not easily occur in a laboratory setting. This kind of psychological and physiological study of laughter is called Gelatology (1). Robert Provine, a pioneer in studying laughter as a neurological phenomenon, reports that it is an extremely social response which dies out if it is isolated and captured (3). So, while laughter is a very individual response it can be induced or inhibited by one's environment. This makes sense because we are more likely to laugh out loud when in a group than when alone. There are three basic theories on why we laugh. The relief theory proposes that laughter works as a release valve to relieve tension. The superiority theory says that we laugh because we feel in a higher position, detached from an unfortunate situation. This apparently is why we laugh at others. The final one is the incongruity theory, which suggests that we laugh when that which actually happens contradicts our sense of what should have happened (2). While all of these theories are interesting and viable, they do not account for many of the other reasons that people might laugh. We laugh when we're nervous or frightened, for instance. This laughter is not so much a release of tension as an expression of it. There are times as well when we laugh uncontrollably for no reason at all or laugh when what we really want to do is cry. There is also the fact that laughter can be forced. Provine argues in his book that laughter is a natural function of the body (4). Why then, are we able to force laughter? The theories seem to suggest that laughter is always the product of a happy situation, but this might just be a social construct and not really a scientific fact. It would be interesting to have gelotologists look into such questions as these.

They say "laughter is the best medicine." But the question remains is it really, and can you prescribe it to everyone? One major way that laughter effects the body is through the immune system. The act of laughing reduces the production of certain hormones associated with stress which disrupt the balance of the immune system. When one laughs, the body produces more gamma-interferon t-cells, or disease fighting cells (2). Don't like to go to the gym? Just laugh the pounds away. Because of the natural shaking and gestures we make when we laugh, it can be an aerobic workout that lowers blood pressure and increases oxygen intake (2). While all of this is fine and good, there are other actions such as prayer, meditation, listening to music etc which provide the same health benefits in terms of increasing endorphins and decreasing blood pressure to clearing the mind reducing stress (5). Professor Diana L. Mahony of Brigham Young University in Hawaii says that laughter can best be described as a "learned automatic response" (5). Apparently, the body can not tell the difference between laughter that is forced and laughter that comes naturally (5). She suggests that laughter has become a social construct that we've learned to use to our own advantage.

People have begun to capitalize on these two facts and create things called laughter clubs. Initiated in India, these clubs have now spread over most of the world (7). There are people, doctors, who call themselves laughter coaches and who can teach you to laugh "effectively" so you can tee-hee your way to health (9). These groups get together, preferably in the morning, for this is when laughter is most potent, and laugh away twenty minutes. This boosts the immune system, clears the mind, lightens the pockets, and keeps a person in good spirits all day long.

The key is that the laughter must be in a group or it does not quite work as well. Laughter is a social phenomenon; that is why it is so contagious. When one hears laughter, it releases this neurotransmitter into the brain that then releases certain chemicals into the body (4). Provine talks of the Tanganikan laughter epidemic of 1962 that started with just a few chuckles and then spread throughout the countryside lasting for six months (3). It is no laughing matter. Laughter is highly infectious. But I suppose there are much worse things one could catch.

The thing that most people do not realize is that laughter has a dark side too. Gelotologists have been so involved with the benefits of laughter that they have not put as much time and research into the cons of laughing too much. There is a type of epilepsy, which causes gelastic seizures, fits of shaking in which you laugh hysterically (1). Imagine laughing, not being able to stop, and no one being able to tell that anything was wrong because you seem so happy. Frightening isn't it?

If laughter is in many ways a social construct, society and science does not yet account for the fact that laughter can be the product of a number of emotions other than happiness. People laugh when they are bitter, when they are angry, sometimes even when they are down right unhappy. Also, in this laughter clubs, people are told to take an optimistic outlook on life. "To laugh at things that are not a laughing matter (9)." In this way we can convince the body that we have no troubles, but what about the mind. Are the other emotions lurking inside so easily distracted? The question becomes, if our body can not tell the difference between forced laughter, and laughter is a learned response, will we soon not be able to differentiate between a true guffaw, and a early morning work out? I fear we will forget to laugh for the sake of laughing; to enjoy that ache in the sides of the stomach and the tears streaming down the face, not because it is a release of tension or lowers the blood pressure but because we are enjoying the conversation and company of good friends.

So go ahead laugh out loud. Chuckle, teehee, snicker, guffaw and chortle your way to good health and the semblance of happiness. And remember as Bert from Mary Poppins so eloquently phrased it,

"We love to laugh (HA HA HA HA HA) loud and long and clear
We love to laugh (HA HA HA HA) so everybody can hear
The more we laugh, the more we fill with glee
And the more the glee, the more we're a merrier we."

WWW Sources

1) Laughter and the Brain.

2) How Laughter Works

3) American Scientist Articles‹Robert Provine

4) Laughter , a book, not a website

5) Is laughter the best medicine?

6) Laughter

7) Laughter club international

8) The Acoustics of Laughter: New Insights into Laughter Therapy

9) Laughter Therapy

10) Humor Therapy



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

08/29/2005, from a Reader on the Web

You know, I just had a job interview, and the feedback I got was that I "laugh frequently and long." The interviewer viewed this as disruptive, but I don't share that perception. What do you think of this? Thanks.

01/19/2006, from a Reader on the Web

i particularly enjoyed your essay on laughter. i have been trying to find information on laughing too loud, i suppose in a negative context, and whether it is social or chemical or both or anything?? you were correct,most information is about the positive effects of laughter, what i am looking for is why do some people laugh too loud/much? thanks so much for any direction you can point me in. cheers, robin ps-your essay made me laugh:)



Serendip Visitor's picture

misspelled words

gelotology* not gelatology

nicole's picture


I was in art class yesterday and then started laughing and coudnt stop laughing. i didnt know why i was laughing so i had to make up an excuse. i was embarressed because i kept laughing. i was under alot of stress the last couple of months could that have something to do with it???

madhav ashtikar's picture

irrelevant laughter is sure

irrelevant laughter is sure sign of insurmountable stress. Act of laughing is used as camouflage to hide pent up stress.if artificial and natural laugh has same effect on body then it cant change ur internal enviornment

Serendip Visitor's picture

I don't know about you but I

I don't know about you but I certainly laugh A LOT when I'm alone; just as much if not more than when I'm with other people. I'll give you that I laugh a lot more at say a TV show when the audience are laughing too than when they're not, but not by much. I also laugh a considerable amount, just as loud & 'expressive' as it were, at other things such as humorous pictures and such when I'm alone. I find it very hard to fake laughter, proper laughter anyway - we had to try and do it in drama and I found it was difficult because laughing is usually such an involuntary response.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Why Do We Laugh?

The three traditional theories of laughter--Superiority, Tension Relief and Incongruity (each around 2,000 years old)-- are for the most part irreconcilable. They are referenced still because each explains some aspects of the laugh response. But the fact that there are theories means that no single one is complete. The Mutual Vulnerability Theory, first presented in the 2008 book WHY WE LAUGH: A NEW UNDERSTANDING, solved this problem. It is a simple yet comprehensive theory to explain laughter. All laughter...from the angelic gurgles of a 2-month-old baby to the hideous cackles of a mass murderer. It reveals laughter's true meaning. It explains why there is so much variation in the laugh response. It answers the question of laughter's contagious quality, reconciles tickling and play-chasing with other more cerebral forms of humor, and presents a cogent hypothesis for laughter's behavioral origins and evolution. Simply stated, you will not understand laughter until you read this book.

venkats's picture


I have been prescribed with a good lasting medicine called laughter. Laughter is the experience or manifestation of mirth, amusement, scorn, or joy. It is an essence, a movement that produces a sound. Laughter is a regular series of short, vowel-like syllables-that are usually transcribed in English as ha-ha, ho-ho, and he-he. It is one of my favorite emotions to show everyday, especially the laughter that brings you tears. They are the good ones. When we were children, we laughed about 400 times a day. As we get older and more serious, the amount narrows down. Adults laugh approximately 15 times per day. That it not enough! We can pretty much laugh at any time of the day and at anything we want. We all need a good laugh.

Jim Lyttle's picture

Laughter does not create, or

Laughter does not create, or increase the flow of, endorphins. It generates some sort of opiate, and certainly feels good (which, in the 1970s, was called "feel the endorphins"). However, there have been two studies that assessed endorphin flow and, in both cases, none was found. The first was done by Antony Chapman in Britain and was never published; the second was done by Lee Berk et al, and again showed no effect on beta-endorphins from laughter. Some "birther" types insist that we will not be able to document endorphin flow until we can do an autopsy, but people who rely on evidence must accept that some other mechanism is at play when laughter generates euphoria.

Anonymous's picture

HI Just wanted to ask about

Just wanted to ask about the psychology of people who do not posses good smile(discoloured or crooked teeth,gums etc) and thus shy away from laughing.... in other words hesitate to socialize,because laughing makes us more socially acceptable(laughter as a sign of friendliness or harmlessness amongst the apes, from which we too acquired the trick)

And yes we can differentiate fake smiles from originals, a crows feet form side by the eyes when u laugh... :-)