To explore gelotology (the science of laughter) and its benefits to our social, mental, and physical well-being.
This lesson is the first of a two-part series on laughter and how it can affect the immune system.
By the end of middle school, students should understand two key concepts regarding the nervous and immune systems of humans. In terms of the nervous system, they should understand that the combination of the senses, nerves, and brain allow us to cope with changes in our environment. In terms of the immune system, they should have knowledge that there are specialized cells and molecules which identify and destroy microbes inside and outside of the body.
This depth of knowledge regarding the human organism allows high-school students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how the nervous system and the brain work together. For example, by the end of high school, students should know that the nervous system works via electrochemical signals in the nerves and that these signals are transferred from one nerve to the next. In addition, they should know that these signals are what allows the human mind to process ideas, and ideas about ideas. Furthermore, their knowledge base should include that people have the ability to produce many associations internally, with or without receiving information from their senses.
By the end of high school, students should understand the following three concepts about human health. First, they should know that communication between the cells of different systems is required to coordinate diverse activities. It is thus reasonable for them to deduce that one system may have an effect on another system. Within this first point, they should also know that the immune system functions to protect against microscopic organisms and foreign substances that enter from outside the body and against some cancer cells that arise within. Second, they should understand that expectations, moods, and prior experiences of human beings affect how they interpret new perceptions or ideas. Third, students should know that ideas about what constitutes good mental health and proper treatment for abnormal mental states, vary from one culture to another and from one time period to another.
The Laughing Brain 1: How We Laugh has a twofold focus. First, it focuses on the science of laughter in terms of how the brain reacts to an external stimulus that is funny. Second, it explores the positive effects of laughter in terms of our social, mental, and physical well-being.
The Laughing Brain 2: A Good Laugh focuses on three concepts. First, it focuses on the various theories of laughter. Second, it focuses on the benefits of laughter to our mental health. And third, it explores psychoneuroimmunology (the science of studying the benefits of laughter to our immune system).
Ask students to rate themselves on a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being the happiest) as to how happy they feel and write their rating on a sheet of paper. Then have them put this sheet aside. Ask students these questions to provoke their thinking about laughter (they do not need to be answered):
- Why is something funny?
- What is the purpose of laughter?
- Why don't we all laugh at the same things?
- Does laughter improve our mental health?
- Do kids laugh more than adults?
- Can you tickle yourself?
Then either use the jokes from Brain Jokes or watch some or all of a funny movie. If you choose to use the jokes, each student can read a joke or two depending upon the number of students in your class. If you choose the movie, then either part or the entire movie can be watched. At the end of either of these activities, have students rate themselves again on a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being the happiest) as to how happy they feel. Students' ratings should all increase in comparison to their initial ratings. Ask students if they feel happier.
This lesson is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on how the brain reacts to an external stimulus that is funny. The second part focuses on the benefits of laughter in terms of our social, mental, and physical well-being.
This part of the lesson addresses the science of laughter in terms of how the brain reacts to an external stimulus that is funny.
Using the What Is Laughter? student esheet, students should review Laughter on the Brain, from How Stuff Works.
After students have reviewed this website, discuss these questions posed on the student esheet:
- What five areas of the human brain have regular electrical activity following exposure to humorous material? (The left side of the cortex, frontal lobe, right hemisphere of the cortex, sensory processing area of the occipital lobe, and motor sections all have regular electrical activity.)
- What part of the limbic system is associated with the production of loud, uncontrollable laughter? (The median part of the hypothalamus.)
- Damage to what brain region restricts one's sense of humor? (The right frontal lobe.)
- What four structures in the brain's limbic system seem to play a role in laughter? (The amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, and hypothalamus seem to play a role.)
- What two steps are necessary to comprehend humor? (One has to be sensitive to the surprise element in humor; once this is realized and someone recognizes that something unexpected has occurred, then one has to go beyond the unexpected and look for something that makes sense.)
Background note: Various sensations and thoughts trigger laughter and its associated responses. The relationship between laughter and the brain, however, is not fully understood. Scientists know little about the specific brain mechanisms responsible for laughter but they do know that many regions of the brain are involved. In a study where EEGs were used to examine brain activity in subjects responding to humorous material, a researcher named Derks determined that brain activity produced a regular electrical pattern. Within four-tenths of a second of exposure to something funny, an electrical wave moved through the largest part of the brain, the cerebral cortex. Specifically, researchers observed electrical activity in the:
- left side of the cortex (where words and the structure of a joke is analyzed)
- frontal lobe (involved in social emotional responses)
- right hemisphere of the cortex (intellectual analysis required to get the joke occurs here)
- sensory processing area of the occipital lobe (contains cells that process visual signals)
- motor sections (evokes physical responses to a joke)
Thus, a neural circuit that runs through many brain regions is involved in the production of laughter. It follows that damage to any of these brain regions could impair one's sense of humor and response to humor.
The brain's right frontal lobe is the processing center that allows one to know when something is funny. This region of the brain integrates information that comes from the cognitive parts of the brain with the emotional parts of the brain.
The human brain has to complete two steps to comprehend humor. Step one requires that one is sensitive to the element of surprise in humor. Once one realizes that something unexpected has occurred, step two is that one has to go beyond the unexpected and look for something that makes sense.
In addition to the above-mentioned regions, there are structures in the brain's limbic system that seem to play a role in laughter. This system, consisting of the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, and hypothalamus, is a network of structures located beneath the cerebral cortex that plays a role in motivation and emotional behaviors. The amygdala and hippocampus are involved with emotions; the amygdala connects with the hippocampus as well as the medial dorsal nucleus of the thalamus. This neural circuitry enables these areas to play an important role in the mediation and control of major activities like friendship, love, affection, and one's mood. Importantly, the median part of the hypothalamus has been identified as a major contributor to the production of loud, uncontrollable laughter.
In this part of the lesson, students examine the benefits of laughter in terms of our social, mental, and physical well-being. To begin this part of the lesson, review this information with the class.
As indicated above, laughter is a relatively complex neural task that our brains perform rather quickly. Research has shown that laughter is important to our social, mental, and physical well-being. Socially, laughter is a universal language that all members of the human species understand, even babies who are only three to four months old!
Then, using the student esheet to guide them, students should read these resources:
- A big mystery: Why do we laugh?
- Why don't we all laugh at the same things?
- What's So Funny and Why: Laughter and the Brain
Background note: According to Robert Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, most laughter is not about humor but about relationships between people. Mentally, laughter helps us cope with life by relieving our mental and physical tensions. For example, we have all seen where a speaker makes a joke before a presentation and how this can decrease tension in the room. Physically, laughter appears to have several benefits. Laughing decreases blood pressure, increases vascular blood flow, increases oxygenation of the blood, and gives the facial, leg, back, abdominal, respiratory, and diaphragm muscles a good workout! In addition, it strengthens the immune system and appears to reduce levels of particular neurochemicals. For example, participants who watched 60 minutes of the comedian "Gallagher" had a decrease in levels of stress hormones (i.e., Cortisol) and neurotransmitters (i.e., Catecholamines).
After students have reviewed the websites, discuss these questions posed on the student esheet:
- What is laughter? (It's relationships between people.)
- What is the major mental benefit of laughter? (It helps us cope with life.)
- What are five benefits of laughter to our physical well-being? (It decreases blood pressure, increases vascular blood flow, increases oxygenation of the blood, gives muscles a good workout, and strengthens the immune system.)
Using the student esheet, students should review the two main points of this lesson—the science of laughter and its social, mental, and physical benefits to our well-being. Students should read an article called Humor, Laughter, and the Brain.
After they have read the article, they should describe in words the process that the brain goes through when they hear a joke. Then they should draw a picture that illustrates each of the three basic components of laughter described in the article.
In their written description, students should demonstrate an understanding of the fact that the process of laughter involves the interaction of various components of the nervous system. Their drawing should demonstrate knowledge of the cognitive, motor, and emotional components of laughter and the regions of the brain believed to be involved with those processes.
For further optional fun, tell students to visit Laughing Out Loud to Good Health. Tell them to click on the interactive fun icon and then to click on laughter therapy. There are several other icons they can click on also!