SCI-ART LAB

Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

Q: Does laughing really help people?

Krishna:

My reply is going to surprise you.

You might have heard this…

In modern society, fierce competition and socioeconomic interaction stress the quality of life, causing a negative influence on a person's mental health. Laughter is a positive sensation, and seems to be a useful and healthy way to overcome stress. Laughter therapy is a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapies that could make physical, psychological, and social relationships healthy, ultimately improving the quality of life. Laughter therapy, as a non-pharmacological, alternative treatment, has a positive effect on the mental health and the immune system. In addition, laughter therapy does not require specialized preparations, such as suitable facilities and equipment, and it is easily accessible and acceptable. For these reasons, the medical community has taken notice and attempted to include laughter therapy to more traditional therapies. Decreasing stress-making hormones found in the blood, laughter can mitigate the effects of stress. Laughter decreases serum levels of cortisol, epinephrine, growth hormone, and 3,4-dihydrophenylacetic acid (a major dopamine catabolite), indicating a reversal of the stress response. Depression is a disease, where neurotransmitters in the brain, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, are reduced, and there is something wrong in the mood control circuit of the brain. Laughter can alter dopamine and serotonin activity. Furthermore, endorphins secreted by laughter can help when people are uncomfortable or in a depressed mood. Laughter therapy is a noninvasive and non-pharmacological alternative treatment for stress and depression, representative cases that have a negative influence on mental health. In conclusion, laughter therapy is effective and scientifically supported as a single or adjuvant therapy (1).

But the truth is - laughter isn’t always positive or healthy. According to science, it can be classified into different types, ranging from genuine and spontaneous to simulated (fake), stimulated (for example by tickling), induced (by drugs) or even pathological. But the actual neural basis of laughter is still not very well known – and what we do know about it largely comes from pathological clinical cases. Laughter is a communal activity which promotes bonding, diffuses potential conflict and eases stress and anxiety. But it loses its momentum quickly when indulged in alone (solitary laughter can have ominous connotations). And certain mental conditions make people laugh and cry at the same time.

A study(2) found patients laughed at “frankly inappropriate” moments, including watching news reports about natural disasters, or seeing a car parked badly. One recalled a relative laughing after a loved one badly scalded herself. Dementia patients were likely to find satirical or absurdist comedy less funny than slapstick, such as Mr Bean, the study found. After the patients were diagnosed, respondents said that they noticed “a shift in patients’ comedy preferences toward the fatuous and farcical”. The study found that an increasingly twisted sense of humour and laughing at inappropriate times could be an early indication of dementia!

There are a number of other specific conditions that may also be associated with abnormal brain wiring. Gelotophobia is an intense fear of being laughed at and denotes depression). Gelotophilia is the enjoyment of being laughed at! The related condition katagelasticism is the joy of laughing at others.

There is a myth that laughing works well always. But that is not entirely true according to latest research. Sometimes, when you are emotionally distressed, crying helps! Laughter does have the power to override other emotions momentarily – but not fully.

Emotional tears starts in the cerebrum where sadness is registered. When you are sad, crying can actually make you feel physically and emotionally better. According to some scientists, chemicals build up in the body during times of elevated stress. These researchers think that emotional crying is the body's way of ridding itself of these toxins and waste products. One study collected both reflex tears and emotional tears (after peeling an onion and watching a sad movie, respectively). When scientists analyzed the content of the tears, they found each type was very different. Reflex tears are generally found to be about 98 percent water, whereas several chemicals are commonly present in emotional tears. First is a protein called prolactin, which is also known to control breast milk production. Adrenocorticotropic hormones are also common and indicate high stress levels. The other chemical found in emotional tears is leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that reduces pain and works to improve mood. Of course, many scientists point out that research in this area is very limited. Some scientists think that crying is beneficial and that crying could be a safety mechanism of sorts because it rids the body of stress-related toxins. Whether or not you buy into this theory, most psychologists say that holding your emotions in can be dangerous over the long-term. In fact, some research indicates that stifling emotional tears can cause elevated risk of heart disease and hypertension. Psychologists recommend that people suffering from grief express their emotions through talking and crying, rather than keeping their emotions in check and laughing artificially.

So in Japan some people have taken the notion of "a good cry" to the next level. They hold organized crying clubs where they watch sad movies and television shows and read tear-inducing books to actually cry!

Now decide for yourself whether you want to laugh or cry! :)

References:

  1. Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Re...
  2. Volume 49, Number 1, 2016

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