A new study reveals that a good laugh with friends can help deal with pain due to the opiate-like endorphins that flood the brain.
British researchers carried out experiments in which volunteers watched either comedy clips from Mr. Bean or Friends or non-humorous items such as golf or wildlife shows while their resistance to mild pain was monitored. Another test was conducted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the volunteers watched either a stand-up comedy show or a theatrical drama.
In lab conditions, the pain came from a deep-frozen wine-cooler sleeve that was slipped on to the arm or from a blood-pressure cuff that was pumped up. For the Fringe Festival, the volunteers were asked to do a tough exercise - leaning against the wall with their legs at right angles.
Just 15 minutes of laughter increased pain tolerance by about 10 per cent, the study found. In the lab experiments, the non-funny programming had no pain-alleviating effect, nor did watching festival drama.
Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford, reports that it is not the intellectual pleasure of cerebral humor, but the physical act of laughing that is important. The simple muscular exertions involved in producing the familiar ha, ha, ha, he said, trigger an increase in endorphins, the brain chemicals known for their feel-good effect. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
His results build on a long history of scientific attempts to understand a deceptively simple and universal behavior. “Laughter is very weird stuff, actually,” Dr. Dunbar said. “That’s why we got interested in it.” And the findings fit well with a growing sense that laughter contributes to group bonding and may have been important in the evolution of highly social humans. Social laughter, Dr. Dunbar suggests, relaxed and contagious, is “grooming at a distance,” an activity that fosters closeness in a group the way one-on-one grooming, patting and delousing promote and maintain bonds between individual primates of all sorts.
Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation,” said he thought the study was “a significant contribution” to a field of study that dates back 2,000 years or so.
Dr. Dunbar thinks laughter may have been favored by evolution because it helped bring human groups together, the way other activities like dancing and singing do. Those activities also produce endorphins, he said, and physical activity is important in them as well. “Laughter is an early mechanism to bond social groups,” he said. “Primates use it.”
Indeed, apes are known to laugh, although in a different way than humans. They pant. “Panting is the sound of rough-and-tumble play,” Dr. Provine said. It becomes a “ritualization” of the sound of play. And in the course of the evolution of human beings, he suggests, “Pant, pant becomes ha, ha.”