Laugh Away the Pain? It’s Evolutionary

by Guest Author on · 3 comments


Did you know we’ve been laugh­ing for ten mil­lion years? It started back when we were apes, of course. That’s when laugh­ter itself was “born.” There’s a rea­son why laugh­ter feels so good, so pri­mal. And the more we learn about it, the more we under­stand why we need a good laugh — prob­a­bly more often than we’ve been getting.

The Quar­ter Review of Biol­ogy recently pub­lished a study that iden­ti­fied two kinds of laugh­ter: spon­ta­neous and strate­gic. Spon­ta­neous laugh­ter is the nat­ural kind dri­ven by stim­u­lus around you, while strate­gic laugh­ter is used “in inter­ac­tion to influ­ence oth­ers or mod­u­late one’s own phys­i­ol­ogy,” said Matthew Ger­vais, lead author of the study and a researcher in the Evo­lu­tion­ary Stud­ies Pro­gram at Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity in New York.

Strate­gic laugh­ter, which the researchers call the “dark side of laugh­ter,” is the kind we use inten­tion­ally, and can some­times be cruel. Think Andrew Dice Clay, or the cool kids who laughed when you walked into 5th grade on the first day of school wear­ing the sweater your mom made you. Spon­ta­neous laugh­ter, on the other hand, arises out of the bond­ing rit­u­als of our pri­mate ances­tors. Think being tick­led or laugh­ing out loud while alone watch­ing YouTube videos of cats get­ting stuck in jars. Marina Davila Ross, a psy­chol­o­gist at Portsmouth Uni­ver­sity, believes laugh­ter emerged about ten mil­lion years ago in the play of apes. Per­haps even in the tick­ling of baby apes. Who knew back then that baby apes being tick­led would be an impor­tant evo­lu­tion­ary link to the ori­gin of Ellen DeGeneres?

In teach­ing and prac­tic­ing laugh­ter yoga, I aim for my laugh­ter to be the spon­ta­neous kind. In this form of yoga, (the word yoga itself can mean “union with the breath”, which is rem­i­nis­cent of laugh­ter), we encour­age one another to gig­gle through exer­cises designed to cre­ate spon­ta­neous laugh­ter. I don’t do it per­fectly; and in fact in my classes, some­times I encour­age a cer­tain kind of strate­gic laugh­ter to cre­ate a bridge to real, spon­ta­neous laughter.

Why prac­tice spon­ta­neous laugh­ter? There have been numer­ous stud­ies about all its ben­e­fits, for our health and our rela­tion­ships. An Oxford Uni­ver­sity study even sug­gests that laugh­ter has pro­vided pri­mates with an evo­lu­tion­ary advantage.

Social laugh­ter is essen­tially “groom­ing, at a dis­tance” and it fos­ters close­ness among pri­mates the way apes bond by pick­ing bugs off each other, Oxford evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gist Robin Dun­bar says in an arti­cle in The New York Times. Even Freud talks about this in his book Jokes and their Rela­tion to the Uncon­scious. But that book is annoy­ing and sexist.

Any­way, laugh­ter not only helps us bond with oth­ers, but also makes us more resilient. The sim­ple mus­cu­lar exer­tions involved in laugh­ing — specif­i­cally the con­vul­sive move­ments of the belly — trig­ger endor­phins that increase our resis­tance to pain, Dun­bar found.

Dunbar’s study, pub­lished in the pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Soci­ety B, Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, sub­jected vol­un­teers to watch­ing var­i­ous videos. Some watched “The Simp­sons,” (who knew The Simp­sons were pop­u­lar in Eng­land?), Eddie Izzard rou­tines, and clips of other kinds of com­edy. A con­trol group watched footage con­sid­ered “feel-good”, but not funny, like nature pro­grams. A sec­ond con­trol group was sub­jected to ‘neu­tral’ (bor­ing) golf and pet train­ing videos. All par­tic­i­pants were mon­i­tored for laugh­ter dur­ing the shows. The par­tic­i­pants who laughed (pre­sum­ably those in the com­edy video group-unless nature videos are get­ting fun­nier) proved bet­ter able to with­stand phys­i­cal pain in resis­tance tests admin­is­tered after they watched the videos. And in my research, I have found stud­ies which state that we expe­ri­ence emo­tional pain sim­i­larly to phys­i­cal pain. Because of this, I would sub­mit that laugh­ter affects emo­tional pain similarly.

This study found that laugh­ter, not just a gen­eral sense of well-being, is key to the endor­phin response and pain relief. For this rea­son, Dun­bar believes laugh­ter has played an impor­tant role the social evo­lu­tion of pri­mates. And I would argue that it has played an impor­tant role in our evo­lu­tion as humans as well. In fact, I believe that laugh­ter, and its coun­ter­part, cry­ing (dur­ing which tox­ins and stress hor­mones exit the body through tears), ful­fill impor­tant bio­log­i­cal needs that sup­port us and pro­pel us for­ward as a species, just as food, sleep, and sex do.

So where does that leave us today? Are we laugh­ing enough to expe­ri­ence all the ben­e­fits our ape ances­tors did when they first dis­cov­ered this nat­ural high? I find that peo­ple who aren’t get­ting enough laugh­ter often feel weighed down by all the seri­ous­ness of adult life.

And if it’s been miss­ing for a long time, laugh­ter needs to be prac­ticed to become part of one’s life. Don’t feel dis­cour­aged if it takes time to remem­ber how to laugh spon­ta­neously. It’s still a prac­tice for me. Laugh­ter Yoga helps. Tick­ling helps. Watch­ing TV blooper reels helps. See­ing actors, who can’t stop laugh­ing, even when they’re sup­posed to be seri­ous, some­how makes me burst out laugh­ing, too. I’m even start­ing to laugh at standup com­edy again, after years of feel­ing jeal­ous while watch­ing other come­di­ans, after hear­ing a great joke they’d writ­ten. I would find myself slap­ping the table with a straight face, say­ing “That’s funny.” in a dead­pan tone, and I real­ized that jeal­ousy had drained the laugh­ter out of me.

Once upon a time, Char­lie Chap­lin said, ”

Laugh­ter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain

.” Like singing, danc­ing, and other phys­i­cal activ­i­ties, shared laugh­ter strength­ens group bonds. A laugh today may play tonic to your pain, and shared gig­gling echoes age-old evo­lu­tion­ary rewards. So find what­ever truly, madly, deeply tick­les your funny bone, and laugh it up!

About the Author: Spir­i­tual Come­dian Ali­cia Dat­tner has been tour­ing the world, sell­ing out her one-woman shows, Eat, Pray, Laugh!, The Oy of Sex, and The Punch­line, and win­ning awards, includ­ing “Best Sto­ry­teller” in the NY United Solo Fes­ti­val, “Best of the Fringe” in the SF Fringe Fes­ti­val, and “Best Come­dian 2011″ in the East Bay Express. Now she’s bring­ing together come­di­ans with a sense of spir­i­tu­al­ity and spir­i­tual teach­ers with a sense of humor in the world’s first Online Spir­i­tual Com­edy Fes­ti­val Jan. 29-March 21, 2013.

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