How laughter impacts the limbic system, and what this means for mental health
The limbic system is involved in all emotions, including laughter, as well as basic functions required for survival. The amygdala and the hippocampus are the two limbic structures playing a role in laughter.
The amygdala connects with the hippocampus and the medial dorsal nucleus of the thalamus. Through these connections, the amygdala plays an important role in the mediation and control of major human activities such as friendship, love and affection, and mood. And the hypothalamus, especially its median part, is a major contributor to loud, uncontrollable laughter.
- Dysfunction in the amygdala region of the brain has been linked to disorders such as depression, Parkinson’s and fragile-X syndrome, a disorder often marked by symptoms similar to attention deficit disorder and autism.
- Problems with the hippocampus result in mental illnesses including Alzheimers, schizophrenia and severe depression.
- Research published in the Dec. 4, 2003 issue of Neuron showed that laughter activated an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, or the NAcc. The NAcc is involved in the pleasurable feelings that follow monetary gain or the use of some addictive drugs. The funnier the content, the more blood flow to the NAcc was measured, confirming its role in humor appreciation.
- Laughter reduces mental tension and increases energy, enabling you to stay focused and accomplish more. Both sides of the brain are stimulated during laughing encouraging clarity, humor and creativity and better problem solving ability.
Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review (Tohoku J. Exp. Med., 2016, 239, 243-249)
Conversational laughter helped prevent or resolve risk of confrontation in addiction group therapy. Arminen I, Halonen M. Laughing with and at patients: the role of laughter in confrontations in addiction group therapy. Qual Rep. 2007;12 (3):484-513.
In patients with schizophrenia, a humor and laughter intervention reduced hostility and depression/anxiety scores; improved activation scores and social support; lowered the levels of psychopathology; and improved social competence.
- Gelkopf M, Kreitler S, Sigal M. Laughter in a psychiatric ward. Somatic, emotional, social, and clinical influences on schizophrenic patients. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1993;181 (5):283-289.
- Gelkopf M. Sigal M, Kramer R. Therapeutic use of humor to improve social support in an institutionalized schizophrenic inpatient community. J Soc Psychol 1994;134 (2);175-182.
- Gelkopf M, Gonen B, Kurs R, Melamed Y, Bleich A. The effect of humorous movies on inpatients with chronic schizophrenia. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006;194 (11):880-883.
Laughter may enhance conversation between health care professionals and patients. Karl KA, Peluchette JV, Harland L. Is fun for everyone? Personality differences in health care providers’ attitudes toward fun. J Health Hum Serv Adm. 2007;29 (4):409-447.