Cracking the Laughter Code: What Happens When You Laugh?


Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”

What you just read was scientifically the world’s funniest joke. But why do you find things funny? What makes a joke funny? Are humans the only living creatures that experience the effects of humor? Is humor really as simple as just making someone laugh? 

These questions may arise as you read the joke, which subjectively may or may not be funny to you. Science has complex answers to all these questions. And humor is a universal phenomenon that has been lifting spirits, easing burdens, and bringing people together in moments of shared laughter. 

This article will provide insights into the diverse facets of humor and its intricate effects on the human experience, from unraveling the evolutionary perspectives on humor to delving into the role of the brain in processing it.

The physiology of laughter

Laughter reverberates from your lungs, tickles your vocal cords, and escapes into the world as a contagious wave of mirth. The eyes crinkle, cheeks rise, and mouths open wide, releasing the distinctive sound which mechanically consists of a series of phonetic segments like “Ha Ha Ha” of about 1/15th of a second, separated by 1/5th of a second. 

Biologically, it is an automatic reaction triggered by humorous stimuli or tickling; physiologically, laughter involves the contraction of about 15 facial muscles, the activation of the respiratory system, and even the stimulation of tear ducts.

Laughter is, however, not just a simple expression of humor. Complex neural and cognitive processes manifest the profound effects of humor. 

Evolutionary perspectives on humor

The evolutionary origins of humor in human history remain unclear. Some perspectives shed insight into its adaptive value and importance. 

Humor reflects social bonding, comfort, and non-aggression within groups. It encompasses cognitive flexibility and intelligence, emphasizing its role in adaptability and survival. Moreover, humor seemed to regulate the “fight or flight response” by increasing the influx of oxygen through activity in your heart, lungs, and muscles activating the body’s relaxation response.

Furthermore, it can serve as a sexually selected trait, enhancing attractiveness and mate attraction. It serves as a signal of “good genes” and expressing interest in social relationships. Humor is not unique to humans; it is observed across various animal species. It serves as an important evolutionary mechanism to signal playfulness and non-aggression. 

Role of the brain in humor processing

If you found the “World’s Funniest Joke” funny, here’s how your brain responded: First, the language and speech center on the left side of your brain analyzed the words and the structure of the joke. The frontal lobe, located behind your forehead, became highly active, with the right side contributing to an intellectual breakdown of the joke’s meaning. 

Simultaneously, the left superior frontal gyrus, a specific region in your brain associated with the delightful sensation of amusement or merriment, was also triggered.

Psychological and cognitive processes in humor

Returning to the joke at the beginning of this article, Dr. Richard Wiseman, a renowned psychologist, conducted the “Laughlab” experiment to uncover the world’s funniest joke according to science. 

Gurpal Gosall, a psychiatrist from Manchester, Britain, submitted the winning joke. When Wiseman reached out to Gurpal, he shared that he occasionally used the joke to uplift his patients, observing the positive effect it had on them because “…it reminds them that there is always someone out there who is doing something more stupid than themselves.”

This is explained by the theory of superiority or ridicule, which suggests that humor arises from a sense of superiority or relief when one realizes they are not the only one facing a comical situation. 

Another explanation is the incongruity theory which suggests that humor results from the perception of something unexpected or incongruous, creating a cognitive conflict resolved through laughter. Psychologists also propose that humor arises from a benign violation of accepted rules or morals, where the violation is non-threatening and non-offensive.

Benefits of humor

Beyond the joy and amusement it brings, good humor triggers a cascade of benefits for your mental and physical well-being. When you laugh, your body releases endorphins — natural painkillers that promote a sense of relaxation and overall well-being, and positive immune markers which determine our ability to fight disease.

Simultaneously, the mesolimbic pathway, particularly the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens, release other feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, contributing to the pleasurable sensations associated with laughter.

Relationship between humor, resilience, and mental well-being

Andrew Tarvin, the world’s first Humor Engineer, highlights the essential role of humor in today’s stressed and fast-paced culture. Millennials, Gen Zs, and Gen Xs face unique generational stressors like technological advancements, societal shifts, and economic uncertainties that contribute to heightened stress, anxiety, and isolation. 

Humor, with its profound influence on mental health, can be a valuable protective strategy. A study demonstrated that intentionally smiling in the face of ambiguity or negativity helps individuals to interpret such situations positively. Applied to daily life, this suggests that adopting humor can help in reframing perspectives on challenging situations, potentially revealing silver linings or alternative viewpoints one might have missed.

In conclusion

Science helps uncover humor’s profound impact on one’s mental health and well-being. Laughter and humor act as powerful coping mechanisms, regulate stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, enhance your overall resilience, and serve as a reminder to find joy amid life’s challenges. 

To your consolation, humor is not an innate ability but a skill that can be learned and developed. Adopting improvisational theater techniques, such as “Yes, and…” and further exploring different perspectives can allow for more meaningful conversations and a deeper understanding of people. 

However, one must recognize and respect the fine line between good-natured humor and inappropriate jokes. 

So, as you navigate the complexities of your life, remember not to underestimate what a good, genuine laugh can do for you.

If you would like to see more resources on  humor, check out the Personal Resilience Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Check out the Personal Resilience Science Labs today.

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