New Evidence Says Laughter Benefits Physical and Mental Health

humor activates multiple brain regions and helps our brains deal with threats and stress

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Recent studies show that pleasant surprises and laughter aren’t just fun and games, Science Alert reported. On the contrary, laughter activates multiple regions of the brain and minimizes the brain’s response to threats and stress. Sense of humor changes throughout a person’s life.

Group of friends laughing together
Laughter boosts our immune systems by minimizing the release of cortisol during times of stress. Photo By adriaticfoto / Shutterstock

According to Science Alert, having a good laugh is serious business. “Laughter—doing it or observing it—activates multiple regions of the brain: the motor cortex, which controls muscles; the frontal lobe, which helps you understand context; and the limbic system, which modulates positive emotions,” the article said.

“Turning all these circuits on strengthens neural connections and helps a healthy brain coordinate its activity. Feelings like amusement, happiness, mirth, and joy build resiliency and increase creative thinking; they [also] increase subjective well-being and life satisfaction.”

Digging deeper into the science of laughter, we find that the things we laugh at throughout our lives are directly related to our brain development.

The Developing Sense of Humor

The earliest example in life of our evolving sense of humor comes from a familiar game parents play with babies. Why do babies grow out of laughing at peek-a-boo? They seem to love it for a while, then it becomes old hat.

“From six months to one year [of age], we establish object permanence—that is, the ability to recognize that something out of sight is not gone, just somewhere else,” said Dr. Steven Gimbel, the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. “Once this is a part of how we understand the world, we are able to get great pleasure from peek-a-boo.”

By the time children are two years old, Dr. Gimbel said, their brains have moved on to bigger and better comedy, like pretending to eat bananas without peeling them. Until children reach the age of six, however, they fail to recognize sarcasm as being different than sincere communication.

“But from six through the teenage years, the sophistication has sufficiently arisen to appreciate what we normally consider to be standard jokes,” he said. “We have the mastery of the linguistic elements and the ability to anticipate how things should be. A good punchline will strike them as extremely funny.”

Are Men Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Will all the sophistication that manifests for children and teens to understand real humor, one has to wonder where potty humor like fart jokes comes from.

“At the tween-stage, 10 to 12 years old, we see an uptick in inappropriate or ‘toilet’ humor,” Dr. Gimbel said. “The main task at this age is internalizing social rules, and so anything that violates them is considered funny. Gross jokes, violent jokes, noises that resemble bodily functions—these are the sorts of humor that reign for this age group.”

Of course, among the sexes, men often seem more prone to making adolescent jokes like these. And that’s not just a stereotype.

“This is markedly more so with males than females,” Dr. Gimbel said. “In fact, it has been observed that many men fail to outgrow this stage, which some have taken to imply that developmental psychology simply does not apply to men.”

In other words, maybe the one-liner should actually go, “Take my husband—please!”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Steven Gimbel contributed to this article. Dr. Gimbel holds the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Chair of the Philosophy Department. He received his bachelor’s degree in Physics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and his doctoral degree in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.