The Neuroscience of Humor: How Laughter Can Boost Your Intelligence, Immunity & Well-Being

As Andrew explains below, telling a joke can do far more than improve your mood – it can also make you smarter, more productive and healthier overall!

Andrew Tarvin - TEDx - Humor at work

Let's Take A Look At Laughter From A Neurological Perspective
From a neurological perspective, laughter is an activity that sets neurons firing off in virtually all areas of the brain![1]The neural basis of humour processing

We react with laughter mostly in response to incongruities – in other words, when things don’t add up between what we think and what we are presented with.

When we laugh, two mains sets of neurons are firing off at the same time[2]Neural correlates of laughter and humour. One is our rational voluntary response to humor – what we think about it, which is largely processed in in the pre-frontal cortex.

The other is an emotional response, which is involuntary. Laughter appears to disengage the amygdala in this set of neurons, ameliorating a negative or fearful outlook. This is part of the reason laughter feels so good!

6 Big Brain Benefits of Laughter
Let’s take a closer look at how laughter benefits our mental health in closer detail.
1) Helps You Learn New Things
In a scientific report, laughter was shown to improve our ability to learn.

Students who are exposed to humor in the classroom retain more knowledge and feel more relaxed[3]Laughter Doeth Learning Good Like a Medicine.

Not only does it help them also to communicate better with one another and forge closer friendships – which also has brain benefit thanks to serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine release – these students experienced reduced anxiety and perceived work as less difficult.

2) Enhances Creativity, Cognition & Focus
neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin . All of these work together to increase cognition, creativity, mood, mental alertness and focus[4]How humour keeps you well!

They are also known to have brain protective effects, promoting neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

3) Stimulates Neurogenesis & Neuroplasticity
An experiment was performed on rats to assess the neural effectiveness of tickling on their brains[5]Neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the rat hippocampus enhanced by tickling stimulation with positive emotion.

Two groups were observed for five days, one of which was tickled everyday. Both groups were measured 18hours and 3 weeks after the experiment for neural cell markers. There was a significant improvement in the group which had been tickled, with lots more neurons than the control in the hippocampus!

The Hippocampus is a part of the brain that is responsible for processing memory, learning and cognition. Neurogenesis in this particular region of the brain will aid in the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases – especially those associated with memory loss or dementia.

Laughter also appears to facilitate approach-related behavior when we are in social company, as opposed to avoidance-related behavior.

Approach-related brain activity and behavior has been known to stimulate neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, whereas avoidance has been associated with suppressing them.

4) Diminishes Pain, Stress & Inflammation
In a study that involved 52 male students at Loma Linda University, it was proven that humor reduces pain, stress and inflammation in the body[6]Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter.

The students were measured to have found reduced inflammatory markers, the kinds that are associated with pain. These effects lasted for a minimum of 12hours after the experiment time!

As mentioned above, laughter also disengages the amygdala, which prevents us from stressing. This would add to lowering inflammation levels as stress or amygdala interference can cause the body to release inflammation.

5) Boosts Our Mood & Immune Function
In the same study quoted in the section above, laughter also improved many parameters of the immune system. These included a raised T cell count and activation (or deactivation if required), reduced inflammation as well as improved immunogobulin count.

These results suggest that laughter will help our immune system better deal with infections and pain, the effects of which also lasted a minimum of 12hours after the experiment!

6) Reduces Blood Pressure
Another benefit of laughing is that is reduces blood pressure, relaxing you and your heart.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for the onset of rapid aging, strokes, heart disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Tips To Lighten Up & Create More Humor In Our Lives
For some of us, humor does not come naturally or it’s difficult due to certain lifestyle factors, such as chronic pain, fatigue, etc.

Nonetheless, according to the literature, the brain cannot tell the difference between authentic laughter or fake laughter, even in situations devoid of humor![7]THE THERAPEUTIC VALUE OF LAUGHTER IN MEDICINE This proves that everyone can benefit from laughter, even if one only smiles or fakes it!

There are however a few more things one can do to feel more positive and laugh a bit more often.

1) Smile!
Data suggests that smiling warrants more opportunities for laughter than not, particularly in social contexts. People feel more inclined to share a joke with those who are already smiling than not, etc.

Smiling can also help to improve your mood, helping yourself and others to feel more at ease.

2) Eat 'Happy' Foods
Certain foods help to trigger positive emotions by promoting the release of neurotransmitters, which are conducive to helping one remain able to laugh – such as probiotics and raw chocolate!

On this point, eating a healthy balanced diet full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants found in whole-plant foods will also help to keep you feeling happier and more relaxed.

3) Relax & Meditate
Meditation calms the mind and allows one to think more clearly. It also helps to de-trigger stress by blocking the amygdala from being able to give negative emotional signals to the brain.

By relaxing and meditating, it will be easier to appreciate the humor in your day-to-day world :)!

Enhance your focus, reduce stress, and get a grip on how you perceive the world through learning how to meditate!

For more information on mindfulness meditation and where to begin, here are some great books for beginners.

4) Exercise
Exercising is one of the easiest ways to release endorphins, which are other feel-good chemicals. It is also often reported that people laugh during or after exercising, as a result of feeling good.

Exercise often releases muscle tension too, particularly if we haven’t exercised in a while. Muscle tension is sometimes related to emotional responses we had, that then get trapped inside the stiffened muscle. When it then gets released, it can trigger laughter!

Here are a few exercise suggestions if you don’t know where to get started.

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