They say that laughter is the best medicine, which is one reason why scientists are looking into a specific aspect of this type of human behavior. Everyone wants to know: is laughter really “infectious?” Researchers from University College London (UCL) in the U.K. think they have found the answer to be “yes.”
In a recent study, UCL researchers had volunteer subjects listen to different sets of sounds, including positive (e.g. cheering, laughter, etc.) and negative (e.g. screaming, retching, etc.) sounds. The reason they did this was to look further into the already discovered fact that people tend to mirror the behavior of others around them, prompted by audio and visual cues. Basically, the researchers wanted to see if there was physical proof that the same reasoning could be applied to laughter. Are you more likely to break out into giggles when everyone around you is laughing?
While they played the aforementioned sounds, the researchers monitored the study subjects’ brain reactions through an MRI. They found that the “pre-motor cortical region” of the brain responded to all of the sounds, positive or negative. This is the area of the brain that tells your facial muscles how to react. Interestingly, the UCL researchers found that the people had a stronger response to the positive sounds, meaning that these could be much more infectious.
You’ve probably already figured this out for yourself. You know the scenario — you’re with a friend who has the giggles, they catch your eye, and, for some unknown reason, you’re suddenly laughing uncontrollably. Well, now it seems that researchers have discovered the physical reasoning behind this phenomenon. It’s really just your brain helping you react in the appropriate way in social situations. When you’re part of a group — whether you’re at a comedy club, a movie, or a baseball game — your brain takes cues from the people around you on how you should respond to what’s going on.
In my opinion, this finding is not just another discovery regarding how the human brain works. It could act as a guide for those of us seeking one of the most natural medicines around — laughter. More and more information is coming out on the topic of positive emotions and health.
For example, an older UCL study looked at the effects of happiness on heart health. Researchers looked at the lifestyles, reported levels of happiness, levels of “cortisol” (the hormone tied to stress), and heart rate in 116 men and 100 women. It was found that those who reported they were happier had lower levels of cortisol.
More importantly, the men who were happier had a heart rate of 68 to 70 beats per minute (bpm), versus over 76 bpm in the unhappy group. It seemed that the happier subjects had lower levels of “fibrinogen” in the blood, which is a chemical that has a direct link to heart disease risk.
Many studies have delved into the topic — too many to list here. Laughter has been purported to increase endorphins, chemicals that could work as natural painkillers in the body and boost your mood, improve the body’s immunity, and lower blood pressure in stroke patients. In general, many people believe that laughter is a great aid for helping healing. So, since laughter is truly contagious, you can see how beneficial it is to get together with a group of friends and just have a good laugh.