Shail Bhatt investigates our curious connection with comedy, and suggests that a bit more laughter may benefit us in more ways than we could imagine.
Laughter certainly is the best medicine. The chuckling, giggling, lung-exhausting wheezing, chortling, and the sudden, roaring cackling is raw and contagious. But why do we find things funny? Why is witty wordplay so amusing? What purpose does gasping for air serve after bursting out laughing?
A man walks into bar. “Ouch,” he says. It was an iron bar.
Whether you laughed or cringed at that joke (although my ego hopes you laughed), your brain processed its humour. In fact, the exact mechanism of how the brain processes humour is more intricate than the joke itself: the detection of the joke and punchline occurred in the left frontal and temporal cortices of the brain, where the brain processes the contents of the joke and compares it with information stored in memories.
Puns are instead processed in the language control centre of the brain (Broca’s area). After this analysis, the response to the joke happens in the insular cortex and amygdala, which regulates our emotions and generates our reaction to the joke. This occurs via the release of the hormone dopamine, which induces pleasure and helps us enjoy the ‘hilarity’ of whatever we have just been presented with.
It is generally believed that humour has two parts, the first being incongruity, which is created when incompatible elements are put together, causing unexpected violation of expectations and resulting in arousal. The second is incongruity resolution, which causes amusement and satisfaction. A good joke will likely satisfy both of these factors, so as to maximise its overall pay off.
Can a kangaroo jump higher than a house? Yes, because a house doesn’t jump at all.
Humour is actually very different from laughter. Laughter is involuntary and instinctive, almost like a reflex, while humour represents the comprehension and response generation to the amusing stimulus. Humour has deeper roots than we could imagine, and its purpose may be crucial for the existence of relationships and societies.
There are several linked theories as to why humour serves an evolutionary purpose. The first theory, known as the Relief theory, states that laughter and humour is a mechanism which alleviates psychological tension. An alternative theory instead outlines that humour allows people to laugh at the misfortunes of others, making them feel more superior; this is why most jokes revolve around embarrassing, awkward and uncomfortable topics, and often exist at the expense of others.
Overall, humour serves as an outlet to allow people to express controversial and disagreeable feelings in a positive way, which ties back to the relief-tension theory. And even more so, as unlikely as it may sound, humour may be used as a form of sexual selection.
“I like to go into the Body Shop, and shout really loud, “I’ve already got one!”
Humour has long-lasting, positive psychological impact as well, and allows us to form social relationships, improving our emotional health. Humour can act as a ‘stress antagonist’ that potentially enhances the cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems.
More than that, humour can increase the resilience of a person as well. Resilience is the ability of a person to, when exposed to stress and trauma, maintain normal psychological and physical functioning and avoid serious mental illness, and with humour, this is increased significantly. This was determined in a study by Michael Cohn of the University of California, San Francisco, where the assessment of 120 students on various emotional scales showed that positive emotions led to greater resilience and life satisfaction by nearly 94%.
This means that those ‘laughter clubs’ that you see in the park, where old people meet to share a joke with one another, do actually work, and are known to improve both the functioning of natural killer cells of the immune system and reduce stress hormones like cortisol.
So next time someone tells a funny joke, instead of making a face, show your appreciation!
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