Fight or Flight + Laughter?
A-maze-ing Laughter. Original Photo by ©Louise Gadd on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Have you ever laughed at a really inappropriate time and you knew in your head it was wrong but your brain and your body just went ahead and did it anyway? I witnessed such an occasion on a television show, Extreme South Africa, recently and it was obvious that Reggie Yates, (dj come) documentary journalist, knew it wasn’t quite the right moment to be laughing but he just could not respond in any other way. He found himself in the middle of an escalating gang confrontation and knew he had to jump in the car and get out of there. He did so, laughing all the while. Perhaps a more experienced foreign correspondent would not have reacted in the same way. But, being a scientist, it got me thinking about how and why we’re wired such that laughter can be triggered in this close-shave situation. I am by no means a gelotologist (yes, a studier of laughter – it’s a thing) or neuroscientist but I’ll have a go at explaining this phenomenon.
You may be familiar with this story from a few years ago exploring the evolution of laughter and its occurrence in other primates. It appears laughter is a fairly primal thing but humans have added several layers of social construct on top of this. In humans, true laughter develops at about the age of four months, and at a young age we laugh a lot more, people with children can probably attest to this. This seems to marry with the social construction around laughter but at its base laughter is a physiological thing constituting mainly contractions of the diaphragm. Essentially though, like any other bodily function, laughter is regulated by the brain and things can get pretty complicated up there.
Tickle Tickle Original Photo by Mark Dumont on Flickr CC BY 2.0
Crucially, chimpanzees only laugh during physical contact such as ‘tickling’ or in chasing
events. I would think that the ‘paradoxical laughter’ outlined above falls
within this same physiological pathway as non-human ape laughter. As far as I
can see (I’m quite happy to be contradicted or informed), neuroscientists don’t
know the exact mechanisms of laughter and many parts of the brain are believed
to contribute. The limbic system (including the hippocampus and amygdala) is
known to be involved in sending and receiving messages to and from the
ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These regions are associated with the regulation
of emotions and also with how we process risk. Crucially, the fight or flight
response originates in the amygdala. So we can see how we might get our wires
crossed when confronted with a stressful situation. However, it may not be that
laughter is a totally inappropriate response in such a situation, it may
actually perform some useful function.
The pleasure and pain of laughter
It is scarcely a new idea that “laughter…is cheap medicine” (Lord Byron), but more recently the scientific validity of this quote is becoming evident. Laughter, like exercise, releases endorphins, raises our pain threshold and increases our immune system. Whilst the fight or flight response down regulates our immune system, preferentially preparing us to flee a situation with the help of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), laughter decreases the levels of these hormones. Perhaps laughter can regulate the hormone levels involved in confronting dangerous situations which often elicit an inappropriate response. While I was watching our intrepid dj-journalist find himself in this situation I first thought “What are you doing? Get out of there,” as he seemed to make no move away from the escalating violence, then he started laughing and finally made the necessary flight to the car. In A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin writes, “Laughter is poison to fear,” and perhaps he is on to something.