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No Joke: Laughter Can Give Brain a Healthy Boost

A good guffaw releases feel-good chemicals, reduces stress


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Question: What’s a sleeping brain’s favorite band? Answer: REM.

If that silly joke elicited a laugh, then you just got a little brain boost, says cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, author of the 2014 book Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why.

The benefits of laughter extend far beyond the obvious intersocial bonding; humor can be downright good for our health, especially our brains. That’s because different parts of the brain are involved in creating a laughter response to a humor stimulus.

A study looking at which parts of the brain light up in an MRI scanner while a subject views a funny cartoon or listens to a silly joke shows visual or auditory center engagement (depending on whether the joke is “shown” or “told”). Humor also sparks activity in the anterior cingulate cortex — a structure deep inside the front of the brain that regulates emotions, decision-making and impulse control as well as blood pressure and heart rate.

No matter how the funny matter is delivered, our gray matter responds. “The funnier [that] people find the jokes, the more active the anterior cingulate is,” Weems says.

In addition to lighting up the anterior cingulate, humor also elicits a response from our reward circuitry, which releases dopamine when treated to comedy. Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter involved in drug highs, the joy of sex and other sensuous pleasures. “You get a big response in the dopamine-producing parts of the brain when you get funny jokes. So if there’s a joke we really enjoy, then these parts of the brain light up, too. The work is being done by the anterior cingulate trying to figure it out, and when you do figure it out, you get a [dopamine] reward. And we really like that, which is why we seek out humor,” Weems says.

Those findings are highlighted in a review of multiple studies that used brain scans to see what part of the brain gets tickled by what types of humor. Among categories of wit described in the overview, published in 2013 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, were static visual stimuli (think a visual pun), dynamic visual stimuli (short movie clips), verbal stimuli (phonetic jokes) and more. The authors suggest that the reactions popping up in various parts of the brain show that appreciation of humor evolved as a way for humans to process social information.  

Laughing also offers body-based benefits, including cardiovascular effects — “it’s actually exercise,” Weems says — and immune system benefits. A study of nearly 21,000 people over age 65 linked more laughter to less heart disease. Authors of the study, published in 2016 in the Journal of Epidemiology, point to research that suggests that laughter can reduce stress and boost production of natural killer cell activity in cancer patients. “These are the cells in our body that fight things like cancer and other invading bodies that are not helpful for us,” Weems says. “When you laugh, you get a greater flow of these chemicals,” which is “really huge. I think there are good benefits to laughter, and there’s good evidence to support it.”

Cognitive psychologist Janet M. Gibson of Grinnell College summed up the research in 2020 in The Conversation: “Researchers now appreciate laughter’s power to enhance physical and mental well-being.”

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