ON LAUGHTER : And the power of humor.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on January 20, 2014

A good belly laugh can change the mood, tone and connection to an other in an instant. Teasing or joking with someone can invite them into a space to play with something in a different way. I have noticed that in my clinical practice, the ability to tease or joke with my patients about a topic which may bring up shame, anger, tension or an emotion which threatens to foreclose their ability to stay present, helps to open up a space in which we can both tackle something difficult differently. Of course,  this is dependent on many things that have become established in my relationship with them- we share a common language and an understanding and trust that has been built over time. It is the context of our relationship that allows room for spontaneity and the ability to play, tease and laugh about something that is also painful, shameful and filled with conflict. When both my patient and I can play and “joke” about difficult matters, a space opens up where it is possible to look and speak about something in a new way. It is almost as if fear, tension, and shame dissolve, and then we are two people laughing within human conflict, playing with possibilities together and experiencing emotions and meaning differently. So this post is about humor, and laughter, and their ability to disrupt negative states of mind and open up potential space.

There is not much in the psychoanalytic literature concerning laughter and humor. Freud wrote Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious early in his career, and although limited in its scope, it remains a favorite of mine. His theory was that jokes bore a resemblance to dreams in that they both operate by condensing meaning and substituting signs. For him, a seemingly trivial event like a joke gave voice to repressed meanings, usually aggressive and sexual in content. Social psychology has added a view of humor as an incongruent social concept that violates an accepted norm in society. In order for something to be humorous it must violate the cultural moral order, it must be transgressive in some way. Ever wondered what’s behind the remark “Only joking!” ?  At the very least it allows someone to say something under the guise of it not being true. Hmmm. Yes, Freud was onto something. So was J.K. Rowling when she made laughter the means to dissolve paralyzing fear through the spell Ridikulous in the Harry Potter books. She too, knew that laughter and humor run counter to tension and fear. Laughter is a powerful spell indeed.

Current research on laughter and humor tells us that they are separate things neurologically speaking -related but not synonymous. Humor is a cognitively driven process that may or may not lead to laughter, and laughter is a seizure like activity (!) that can come about through humor but also through something like tickling. What they do share is the ability to disrupt negative states of mind, at a neuro-biological level. Humor and laughter activate meso-limbic brain systems that are dopamine receptive – they activate the reward system in our brain that generates the chemicals responsible for wellbeing (natural opiates). Aha. You probably already knew that because you felt it the last time you had a good laugh. But there is more.

It turns out that humor might be a truly unique human function (unlike laughter). Humor involves a complex assembly of specific neural pathways, which activate brain regions associated with abstract thinking, social perception, symbol recognition, emotional attunement and language. Many of these involve right hemispheric functions, which interpret emotional material (both linguistic and implicit), and engage the comprehension and expression of emotion(s) that is instrumental in attending to environmental cues for survival. Humor seems to initiate an inter-hemispheric dialogue that involves procedural memory, implicit knowledge, attunement to social cues and context, and even implicates mirror neurons.  In fact, humor may turn out to be our most cognitive complex attribute, in that it utilizes multiple layers and levels of brain power and structure.

Laughter on the other hand, turns out to be what scientists call a fixed action pattern– a reflexive action that can occur without conscious appreciation of all the causal factors involved. Laughter and smiling occur within the first year of life and are triggered by physical sensations and stimuli unrelated to the cognitive intricacies of humor. There are those who consider the laughter involved in peek-a-boo games as an embryonic form of humor, involving a sense of mastery that continues to develop(in relationship)  as a child grows. By the time a child reaches school age, her/his sense of humor resembles that of an adult, albeit without the richness of experience or breath of linguistic ability.

The power of humor lies in its ability not only to use words as complex symbols of emotion and meaning, but in its re-contextualization of meaning through relational negotiations of intricate self-other impressions that help navigate difficult feelings and potentially contentious situations. Returning to Freud and to psychoanalytic notions of the unconscious, humor and laughter release psychic tension associated with negative feelings and emotions. Humor and laughter are pleasureable, healthy anxiety reducing behaviors. According to current research, laughter and humor also facilitate cooperation between people by providing information on the empathy and sympathy levels of both participants. Laughter is a response that signals that one is both ready and able to cooperate. Now we are talking!

Humor creates a social bond between people on the basis of mutual understanding of many complicated social and cultural and personal cues. Humor is contextual. It is relationally driven and elaborated. It is spontaneous and playful. It is the stuff of magic, which can shift the self from one state to another through play, creativity, spontaneity and relationship.




{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lanie Pianta January 21, 2014 at 6:39 AM

Thank’s for this piece of writing, which resonated with me. I’d like to think I have a good and strong relationship with both “laughter” and “humour.” As an Australian, we even spell it a funny way. I reckon that humour has assisted me both personally & professionally throughout my life’s journey: in the events that have been part of my multi-storied existence and unique lived experience. At times it has gone missing and when I’ve become aware of its absence; invited it back in. Sometimes humour and laughter go missing when my relationship with anxiety becomes stronger or more prevalent. Anxiety depends on that! Humour is, I reckon, part of my resilience: that which enables me to laugh at myself (a great Australian trait) and helps add much needed perspective at times.
As a clinical social worker in health (community & hospital-based) I remain in awe of people’s remarkable capacity to invite both laughter and humour into what often seems a past and/or present where trauma has been/is present. I am always curious about how this is so and we’ll have conversations around this capacity/strength and how some people are able to maintain their relationship with humour and laughter in the midst of all manner of problems.
Your last paragraph sums it up for me …
“Humor creates a social bond between people on the basis of mutual understanding of many complicated social and cultural and personal cues. Humor is contextual. It is relationally driven and elaborated. It is spontaneous and playful. It is the stuff of magic, which can shift the self from one state to another through play, creativity, spontaneity and relationship.”


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