What Happens in the Brain When We Laugh?
Did you hear the one about the young engineer fresh out of MIT who interviews for a new position? As the conversation is wrapping up, the HR officer asks, “What kind of salary range are you looking for?”
The engineer replies, “I’d consider $150,000 a year, depending on the benefits.”
The HR officer pauses for a moment, and then leans in and says, “Well, how about 6 weeks of vacation, a corner office, full medical and dental, a retirement match up to 50%,
and a company car…. Maybe a BMW?”
The engineer says, “Wow! Are you kidding?”
HR says, “Yeah, but you started it.”
The study of laughter from a psychological and physiological perspective has a name — gelotology. Formally established in 1964 by Norman Cousins and later pioneered by William Fry of Stanford University throughout the 1970s, we’ve learned a lot about how laughter engages the brain and how that engagement impacts us. Recent neural imaging studies show that laughing at a joke can stimulate 5 different regions and release of neurotransmitters.
This is what happens in the brain when you laugh:
- First the left side of the cortex receives the input and passes it on to the right side.
- The right side of the cortex conducts the intellectual analysis of the words and the structure of the joke.
- The brain’s large frontal lobe processes the incongruent information (which is what makes a joke a joke) and determines how you respond.
- Then, whether you groan, smile, chuckle, or let out a full belly laugh, the motor area handles the physical responses.
- Finally, the limbic system springs into action to serve up a healthy dose of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.
Once all of those good chemicals are flowing, cortisol decreases.We engage muscles in our face and throughout the body, we breathe a little faster sending more oxygen to the tissues and the brain.Dr. Lee Berk has been studying the impact of laughter on neurotransmitters for several decades. According to his research, there is a link between laughter and the antibodies that boost the immune system. In fact, simply looking for reasons to laugh can impact cognitive function, emotional stability, and overall well-being.
Perhaps the most important benefit of laughter is that it strengthens the human connection. Studies show that we are 30 times more likely to laugh with other people than when we’re alone. It’s called emotional contagion, and what it means is that just seeing or hearing happy people can stimulate the release of happy chemicals in your own brain. Unfortunately, it works the same way with stress. Just seeing someone stressed or hearing an angry voice can stimulate the release of cortisol in your own brain.
Albert Einstein once said, “With greatness comes humor.” Wouldn’t he be happy to know we now have science to back up that wisdom?
Dr. Melissa Hughes is the President and Founder of The Andrick Group and the author of Happy Hour with Einstein. She specializes in growing our capacity to learn as well as employee engagement, effective communication strategies, and the unique dynamics of the multi-generational workforce. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, Melissa incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to improve the way we think, learn, communicate and collaborate.