Humor for Health: What Modern Science and our Evolutionary Story Teach Us about Lightening Up

Inline_Humor_HealthI’ve always believed you could tell a lot about a person based on when they laugh. Or if they laugh at all. Laughter provides a brief but in-depth window into arguably the most enigmatic organ in the body—as well as the idiosyncrasies at work for that individual.

I’ve suggested before that we adults take life way too seriously. Compared to the average child, who belts out around 400 laughs a day, we summon a measly 15-18 per day. Somehow I think we’re missing out with all that seriousness—mentally and maybe even physically.

Just think for a minute about how you feel when you DO laugh. (Can you remember the last time you did?) The almost involuntary force moving up the chest and out, the streaming eyes, shaking body, overall brightness, heady elation, the complete loss of anything even remotely resembling stress or worry. There you go.

Laughter is infectious, and there’s a reason for that. It heals the body, lifts the spirit, and elevates mood like nothing else can. It eases tension—for you and for a group. Emotionally, socially and physically, laughter’s benefits seem thoroughly underrated. The science seems to agree.

Grok as Funny Guy

Let’s back up a minute and look at the ancestral picture. Humor performed a critical function within evolution by encouraging social cohesion and alleviating the personal stress that could’ve otherwise kept Grok and his kin angry, desperate and inflexible in conditions that required a more adaptable response for survival.

Research shows that our ability to find amusement in dialogue and situations actually evolved in parallel with our neurological and physiological changes over millions of years. Researchers at Binghampton University postulate that laughter is a “preadaptation that was gradually elaborated and co-opted through both biological and cultural evolution.”

Humor in its early form probably developed in our distant hominid ancestors 2-4 million years ago. At this point, experts theorize that it was incorporated into those primal “societies” to promote resource-building and bond-forming social play during the brief periods of safety.

It makes sense. As our brains developed, our skill sets broadened, and more disposable chill time on our hands, a more complex social structure would have emerged. Humor and laughter were one of the binding agents that allowed tension between clan members to be alleviated, friendships to be formed, and (let’s be honest) sexual relationships to flourish.

With time, humor began to diversify into the varied forms we see today. Presumably, the way in which social humor forced Grok’s mind to compare and cross-reference imagined hilarity with real-world situations would have contributed to cognitive complexity. With an expanding brain, Grok and his line were more capable of creating and understanding complex humor, allowing more intricate and stronger social ties but also more innovative, creative thinking.

It’s interesting to look at the role of humor and the image of the humorless in existing hunter-gatherer societies. Take the Ju/‘hoan, a small population of hunter-gatherers in the southern part of Africa, for whom humor is used to encourage humility and cohesion: “humor is used to belittle the successful but boastful Ju/‘hoan hunter; if that fails, he will be shamed with the label !xka xan, ‘far-hearted’, meaning mean or stingy.” Man gets cocky, man gets a chance to not be so cocky courtesy of a few humorous wise cracks. If man doesn’t comply he gets called names. Fair—and usually enough in that setting to smooth things over and regroup.

While it can be said that we still share many behavioral and societal similarities with our ancestral cousins, it’s reasonable to say that humor was one of the things that set us apart during the early stages of our evolution. The frontal lobes of our brains make sense of the discrepancy between what we know to be true and the actual joke or comedic antics in question. This ability is unique to humans. While apes can “act up” and tease each other, they can’t actually shift back and forth between multiple interpretations of a scenario. This requires a comprehensive memory, which our brains were already in the process of developing over 4 millions years ago but went on to hone ever since.

With a larger brain, the depth and breadth of Grok’s memory database increased, enabling him to create and appreciate more subtle forms of humor. In this way, we see the evolution of humor in parallel with the evolution of the human species. Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.

Window into the Laughing Brain

Researchers at the University of Dartmouth sought to find out what parts of the brain fired up in response to humorous stimuli. They hooked study participants up to an fMRI machine to determine which areas of the brain activated during episodes of Seinfeld (great choice) and The Simpsons. Based on their responses, the team ascertained that joke detection occurred in the left side of the brain: specifically, the left inferior frontal and posterior temporal cortices.

This makes sense from what we already understand of these sections of the brain, with the left side helping us to process strange or curious information and cross-reference it with information already stored in our memory database. So, the jokes or on-screen shenanigans go in, are processed in relation to what we already know (a la memory bank), and emotional appreciation is created in the insular cortex and amygdala. Head-scratching jargon aside, that all seems relatively straightforward.

Scientists then looked at how different types of jokes were processed, finding that semantic jokes were processed in one area of the brain, puns in another, and cheesy “guy walks into a bar” type jokes processed in yet another location. Kind of makes you want to laugh at anything remotely funny when you imagine how hard your impoverished brain is working to process it!

Obviously, when we’re all over a punchline, our brains release a heady mix of dopamines via the amygdala. When we crack up, those dopamines are transmitted across the brain, which in turn helps us to join in, and possibly contribute to, the ensuing hilarity. When we’re depressed or anxious, however, our mesolimbic reward system switches off the dopamine valve, making it harder for us to find things funny when we’re in this state. The take-away? When you’re in a crummy mood, it’s difficult to open the humor valve, but once it’s cracked open, it’s hard to return to the doldrums.

Another study approached the use of MRIs and humor from a different angle. Researchers gathered up a crew of professional comedians, amateur comedians, and non-comedic volunteers, exposed them to certain amusing cues, and watched closely to see what parts of the brain lit up. In addition to verifying that specific regions in the left brain respond, they also discovered something interesting about the way comedians’ brains work.

Those professional comedians – and to a lesser extent the amateur comedians – had far more activity in the temporal lobe, which is associated with the generation of humor, than did the crackless non-comedic participants. In a curious tradeoff, however, they showed the least activity in the ventral striatum, the quintessential “pleasure center” and the location most associated with appreciation of humor.

It’s an intriguing bit of irony. In the process of becoming funnier, comedians increasingly lose the ability to appreciate humor generated by others. Maybe it’s a Faustian bargain, having simply immersed themselves in so much humor that those same dopamine receptors just don’t respond to the stimulus anymore. In any case, a bummer for them.

Professional comedians aside perhaps, the neurology of humor can tell us something about a person’s mental health. Neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak notes, “humor impairment may point to operational problems at various levels of brain functioning.” Restak goes on to explain that physical injuries to the right hemisphere of the brain, which plays an important role in enabling a “holistic” view of situations, can damage our ability to process and appreciate humor.

Damage to this part of the brain can prevent a person from shifting between pre-conceived assumptions (using that memory database I talked about earlier) and an ironic or silly alternative presented by a joke or cartoon. These patients would instead show a tendency towards being excessively literal, with an inability to make the comparisons between reality and make-believe that enables an appreciation of humor.

Humor’s Health Bonuses

And then there’s the other side of the coin—how our natural, human ability to appreciate and process humor confers physical benefit.

Not that this is a new insight. In the 14th century, French surgeon Henri de Mondeville recognized that humor was an important part of the healing process, actively encouraging friends and family to visit his patients in order to tell them jokes and cheer them up. The original Martin Luther, philosopher and catalyst in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, used humor in his mission to cure depressed followers. 18th century English physician William Battie used humor to treat illness.

You get the point. More recently, Norman Cousins described in his bestselling book, Anatomy of an Illness, how he attempted to treat a mysterious and rapidly progressive inflammatory illness (ankylosing spondylitis) of the spine by watching hour after hour of Marx Brothers films and reruns of Candid Camera (apparently that was actually funny in the 70s!).

While his claims were not, of course, scientifically verified, modern research suggests that any progress he made with his illness could indeed have been due to watching people, dogs, and other animate objects make fools of themselves. One study found that so-called “natural killer cells” were more active against cancer cells after people were shown a funny video. Curiously, those people who laughed out loud, as opposed to just smiling or smirking, had greater immune activity and increased killer cell activity.

Next, there’s the fact that laughter can provide a physical workout for the body. Research also demonstrates that laughter “can lead to immediate increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, respiratory depth and oxygen consumption.” Those effects are very similar to what we experience during moderate to intense exercise, burning off stored energy. Of course, it’s only around 50 calories per hour, but I’d venture to say it’s one of the more enjoyable ways to be “active.”

Finally, there’s the oft-repeated claim that humor, and particularly laughter, cuts through stress like a hot knife through butter. Sure, many of the studies that have sought to quantify the stress-alleviating effects of humor are contradictory, involved small control groups, and were driven by a bias in that the researchers started out to prove that laughter has benefits. All fair points. Admittedly, there’s a certain irony to the entire process as a whole. As E. B. White once noted, “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”

But I don’t need science to prove beyond an exacting shadow of doubt this particular health claim for my purposes. I know it has substance, based on the fact that every time I laugh I feel good. My mood changes. The air clears. Those I’m with feel it, too, and we’re suddenly all the better for it. To me, these are easily the most important benefits of laughing. The physiological bonus is gravy, fascinating as it is.

Because ultimately I’m out for quality of life. Like good Primal eating, like play, like rest, humor offers the best of all worlds. It’s an essential hallmark of human identity. It’s a healing practice, a social unifier. It’s therapy, elixir and entertainment all at once.

In ancient ancestral community, these purposes inherently coexisted—for living social tradition and just holding one’s existence lightly. There’s a thought… We moderns miss the point of this grand venture when we limit our experience of finer states like curiosity, awe, euphoria—and most easily (and maybe especially) laughter.

So, go forth and find something to laugh at today. Netflix, YouTube, improv, memes, practical jokes in the office…whatever works for you. And share your thoughts (and favorite sources) in the comment section. Take care, everybody.

TAGS:  humor

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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