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.
Laughter helps to think more clearly and have more integrative thoughts
A recent study showed that people who engage in joyful laughter produce brain wave frequencies similar to that of a true state of meditation. “When there is mirthful laughter, it’s as if the brain gets a workout because the gamma wave band (the only frequency found in every part of the brain) is in synch with multiple other areas that are in the same 30-40 hertz frequency. This allows for the subjective feeling states of being able to think more clearly and have more integrative thoughts. This is of great value to individuals who need or want to revisit, reorganize, or rearrange various aspects of their lives or experiences, to make them feel whole or more focused,” said Lee Berk, DrPH, MPH, principal investigator of the study.
Laughter breaks the cycle of psychological negativity
Individuals who laugh easily and frequently have better self-esteem and a much more positive outlook on life in general. In the bigger picture laughter is a survival skill that relieves tension, keeping us fluid and flexible instead of allowing us to become rigid and breakable in the face of change.
Laughter is a tool that can disarm, open doors and possibilities and enable other elements of levity such as play, wonder and celebration of life.
Choosing to laugh (as advocated by Laughter Wellness) does not change your outer circumstances but how you perceive them. A meaningful life and a happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Seeking to lead a happy life is associated with being a “taker” (there is an emptiness inside that you are trying to fill) while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver” (you are full inside and want to share that).
Choosing to remain positive and be comfortable with your imperfections and the challenges in your life does not mean you have to be complacent about them. You should not. Laughing about them is a sign of maturity. Accepting and embracing our frailty and shortcomings as human beings opens the door to compassion.
In the words of Bernie DeKoven, “Playing and laughing together, especially when we play and laugh in public, because we choose to, just because, is a profound, and, oddly enough, political act. Political, because when we play or dance or just laugh in public, people think there’s something wrong with us. It’s rude, they think, childish, a disturbance of the peace. Normally, they’d be right. Except now. Now, the peace has been deeply disturbed – everywhere, globally. And what those grown-ups are doing, playing, dancing, laughing in public is not an act of childish discourtesy, but a declaration of freedom, a demonstration that we are not terrorized, that terror has not won, that we refuse to let fear, anger, guilt or resentment win and rule our lives.”
Choosing to laugh with life and others (not at them) is a practice that will teach you to first see what works before what doesn’t work.
Laughter and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Michael Cortina, director of outpatient services at the Regional Mental Health Center in Merrillville, Indiana, shows that PTSD can be healed with laughter. The idea is to help people be able to think or talk about their traumatic event with absolutely no emotional distress, and flip a past emotional memory into a memory of an emotion.
“The therapy, developed by Florida therapist Jon Connelly, is geared to people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder who experienced a traumatic event or who deal with anxiety, guilt or frozen grief, among other conditions“, Cortina said.
“It is absolutely revolutionary. It eliminates the negative effect and emotional distress of that trauma in one session” he said.
The therapy has drawn criticism from skeptics, but Cortina said the success rate speaks for itself.
“The success rate for trauma and related guilt specifically with me has been 95 percent.“
The social component
Laughter is mainly about relationships. We live in a society that tends to isolate and divide people.
Laughing together can greatly improve cooperation and empathy between people of different cultural backgrounds. It fosters better communication, which leads to a less confrontational approach in tense situations and a change from individual competitiveness to team cooperation. Voluntary simulated laughter in particular is most beneficial for very socially and culturally diverse groups thanks to its universal and inclusive nature, because it means that they can all join in and develop a sense of belonging.
The English comedian John Cleese said, “I’m struck by how laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance, any sense of social hierarchy when you are just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.”
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.
Take your interest further!
Discover Laughter Wellness, a complete system of methods (lifestyle medicine) that promotes physical, mental, emotional and social health and wellbeing through laughter and associated empowering techniques. Laughter Wellness is designed to lessen the illness impact and help normalize people’s lives.
About the author: Sebastien Gendry is the founder and CEO of the Laughter Online University as well as The Laughter Consultants, Inc., a business dedicated to helping those organizations who wish to boost moral and productivity, or reduce stress and costs. A leading global expert on Laughter Therapy, he helps individuals and businesses introduce and/or re-establish the energy of laughter in their lives and work for better health, wellbeing and peak performance. Sebastien has over 10 years of full-time experience in his field working with 1000s on four continents.