Funny is the new drug

Reader’s Digest has long told us that laughter is the best medicine, but it turns out it also helps us to cope with pain.

British scientists showed volunteers clips from either comedy programs, like Mr Bean or Friends, or unfunny shows, like golf, or wildlife documentaries. They also found volunteers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and made them watch either stand-up comedy or theatrical drama.

They then exposed the laboratory subjects to mild pain, from a cold wine cooler sleeve on their arm, or a tight blood pressure cuff (the festival goers were given a strenuous physical challenge of leaning against a wall with their legs bent, like sitting on a chair).

What they found was that 15 minutes of laughter was enough to increase the subjects’ level of pain tolerance by 10 per cent. Whereas the serious programs, or dramatic theatre, had no such effect.

Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) playing mini-golf
If Mr Bean is good for you and golf isn't, then what about Mr Bean playing golf?

The likely explanation is the release of endorphins, which are known to dull the nerve signals associated with pain. Endorphins are typically released by physical exercise, which in this case would be the muscular exertion of repeated, involuntary exhalation of breath that makes up laughter.

But there is one condition: the pain reduction effect only seems to apply with a good, hearty belly laugh, rather than a gentle titter. These big laughs are more likely to happen in groups than to people on their own, which reinforces the idea that laughter is a tool for social bonding.

Who’d have thought Friends¬†represented an evolutionary advance?

Dunbar RIM, Baron R, Frangou A, Pearce E, van Leeuwen EJC, Stow J, Partridge G, MacDonald I, Barra V & van Vugt M, “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published online before print September 14, 2011, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1373

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