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UCLA

Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine

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By Maureen Brogan

Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM


Science shows it lowers stress and boosts immunity.

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Photo: iStock

Jimmy Buffett sang, "If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane." Turns out, he may have been right. Cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems M.A. '00, Ph.D. '03 contends that humor arises from inner conflict in the brain, the social or psychological processing of ideas not easily handled by our conscious minds. When the brain is asked to hold two or more incongruent thoughts at the same time, our brains release the pressure through laughter.

In his new book, HA! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, Weems explains that "the brain doesn't work like a computer, which has a central processor that makes final decisions. Instead, the brain has many modules, each of which processes information simultaneously — and, quite often, the information or messages conflict with one another."

Under the right circumstances, almost anything can make us laugh, but not everything that makes us laugh is funny. Weems uses the example of the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to explain the dichotomy. The classic black comedy portrays the futility of nuclear brinksmanship in which laughter is our only possible response.

"One anecdote that didn't make the final version of the book is about American soldiers in Yucca Flats, Ariz., who volunteered for atomic bomb testing," says Weems. "They were in shelters, being bombed by nuclear devices, and they laughed hysterically every time they were hit. ... Laughter helped keep their brains from shutting down from all the internal conflict."

That's just one of the many ways that laughter is good for us. Watching a funny movie can lower stress, improve our immune system response and even make us better problem solvers. And keeping a funny outlook on life is one of the healthiest ways to remain cognitively sharp, according to Weems. "Humor is linked to almost everything we do as higher-thinking beings," he says. "Insight, creativity, language and memory all interact to produce humor. So by studying humor, we can actually understand a lot more about ourselves."

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