This Is What Comedy Does to Your Brain
Comedy can be good for your physical and mental well-being. It can also reveal something about the personality of comedians.
Comedy can lift your spirits and make the world seem a little more tolerable when times are tough. But what’s the physical and psychological science behind how comedy affects us?
We asked Scott Weems, Ph.D., cognitive neuroscientist and author or “Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why,” and Caleb Warren, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona and assistant professor at the Humor Research Lab, for their insights on some of the serious ways funny business can impact our bodies and minds.
1. Comedy is actually good for your body.
Dr. Weems describes the emotional experience of comedy as the opposite of anxiety and distress. This is because laughter boosts the release of beta endorphins (the family of chemicals that alleviates depression) and human growth hormone (aka HGH; it helps with immunity), as discovered in a 10-year-old California study.
He adds that scientists have also shown that simply laughing increases the flexibility of your blood vessels, allowing for more efficient flow of blood. It also increases tolerance for pain — even reducing the time and medication needed for recovery from surgery.
2. Comedy is also good for your mental well-being — most of the time.
Aside from helping to de-stress you, comedy can chill you out and give you perspective. “Simply being exposed to humor before an unpleasant event helps us deal with that event in a healthy way,” he says. But there’s a caveat: Light, “socially facilitative” humor, such as what you might see on an episode of “Friends,” appears to be far healthier for you than self-deprecating or dark humor, which isn’t so great for your psyche because it can facilitate negative feelings.
3. Funny people can seem — or really be — depressed.
Some scientists have noticed a connection between the thought patterns of comedians and those who suffer from mental illnesses. In particular, one Oxford University study concluded some attributes required to produce humor are comparable to the attributes found in those who suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
However, Peter McGraw, a psychology and marketing professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny,” told Time magazine that most comedians are probably quite well-adjusted, especially considering the amount of rejection they face in their careers. Another paper he wrote explains how comedians can come off as having psychological issues because of the negative things they share about themselves.
4. We think something’s funny when it’s so wrong it feels so right.
Warren says that when viewers perceive humor, they often experience positive emotions (amusement) along with negative emotions (disgust), like when you hear a fart joke or a bad pun. His research colleague Dr. Peter McGraw calls this kind of thing the Benign Violation Theory, in which “humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems OK, acceptable or safe (i.e., benign).” If you think about it, this theory easily applies to slapstick, cartoons, standup and internet memes as ll as the work of comedians like Louis C.K.
5. This may be because the brain processes comedy like a conflict.
“One reason we enjoy humor so much is that our brain is hardwired to encourage us every time we get the joke,” Weems says.
How? Humor activates the part of the brain that delivers dopamine, otherwise known as our “reward” neurotransmitters, which make us instantly feel good. Certain parts of the brain are stimulated by all kinds of humor — namely, the anterior cingulate, or conflict-resolution part of your brain.
“When we receive conflicting signals for how to interpret something in our lives, this is the region which helps us work things out,” Weems explains. “That’s what most of humor is, actually: a moment of confusion followed by punchline or resolution.”
It also activates many parts of the brain, depending on the kind of joke, says Weems. For example, cartoons activate the visual part of your brain, while spoken jokes activate the auditory parts.
Regardless of the type of joke, however, science is on comedy's side. Now that's something to chuckle at.