Why Laughter May Be Medicinal

A new study of 14 people finds that the body's response to laughter is similar in some ways to its response to repetitive exercise. For example, watching humorous videos lowered blood pressures, the researchers report. Preventive care expert Lee Berk explains the findings.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(Soundbite of movie "A Night At The Opera")

Mr. JULIUS HENRY "GROUCHO" MARX (Actor): (as Otis B. Driftwood) It's all right. That's - that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a sanity clause.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEONARD "CHICO" MARX (Actor): (as Fiorello) You can't fool me. There ain't no sanity clause.

IRA FLATOW, host:

That's one of my favorite clips from the Marx Brothers' movies, it's "A Night At The Opera."

And if you're of a certain age, you may remember when Norman Cousins was the editor of Saturday Review; he was a respected journalist and well-known believer in the healing power of laughter. And after he developed a debilitating connective tissue disease, Cousins controlled the disease, reportedly, and the pain it caused using daily doses of laughter and those of the Marx brothers. I'm sure that must have been one of the movies he was watching. He wheeled in a movie projector and watched all these Marx Brothers movies and repeats of "Candid Camera." And he said he beat the odds and lived many years past his diagnosis.

And in those intervening years, he turned to scientists to see if they could quantify what was happening in the body when somebody laughs. And that's just what my next guest has been doing.

Lee S. Berk is a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunology researcher in the School of Allied Health and Medicine at Loma Linda University. He is here with us today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LEE S. BERK (Loma Linda University): Good - good morning, I guess, on my side of the country.

FLATOW: You actually... Yeah, I guess so.

Dr. BERK: And good afternoon on your side of the country.

FLATOW: You actually met Norman Cousins, did you not?

Dr. BERK: I knew - I - actually I knew Norman very well. Met him in a very surreptitious way where he called me on the phone one day and asked - he wanted to come over to Loma Linda and talk to me. And the story began with asking what it would take to do research with laughter.

FLATOW: And you've done research...

Dr. BERK: The response was, of course, money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Makes you laugh thinking about it.

Dr. BERK: Then said how much? And of course I was a very naive medical researcher at that time, and my response was, well, to do some pilot studies 25,000 would get it started. And the next response from his mouth was, who do I write the check to?

FLATOW: Yeah. Tell us about the research that you just published, showing that you - you looked at people who had heart attacks and showed that laughing can help them.

Dr. BERK: Yes. I mean, that's not surprising. People have heart attacks for many reasons, clogged arteries, too much cholesterol, occlusions. Another reason you have heart attacks is you because induce arrhythmias from stress hormones such as epinephrine or adrenaline. And so, by inducing these arrhythmias, you can induce the heart attack.

It's very logical that if you reduce the stress and increase your laughter, so to speak, you - and the evidence is there, we've documented it as well as others - that you lower your stress hormones that are responsible for inducing some of those heart attacks.

FLATOW: And In your most recent study, just of 14 people, you showed that laughter had similar effect as regular exercise. Wow.

Dr. BERK: The puzzle is getting very intriguing. When I say the puzzle, the pieces of the puzzle are coming together in that that there is a substantial parallelism between moderate exercise and repetitive use of laughter. A term I like to use is called "laughercise." And the physiology or biology is uncannily in parallel with decreases in blood pressure after the event, in enhancement of immune system components. And in a study that we just did not too long ago and presented, actually, on Tuesday at the experimental biology meetings 2010 in Anaheim, California, we showed that the response of the appetite hormones is very similar with the use of mirthful laughter as it is with - to exercise.

FLATOW: Now, you're not saying that it can cure broken bones and cancer and things like that.

Dr. BERK: No, I don't - no. Sitting and listening to a song is not going resolve a compound fracture. Laughing is not going to resolve a tumor. But certainly, what I'm suggesting is that the intrinsic pharmacology that we have, that is the - our own biology within us, can potentially synergize a healing process, along with conventional therapy.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And of course, what is funny is different for everybody else. Right?

Dr. BERK: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, not everybody likes the same kind of music, same thing with humor. So you have to find what works for you, because that what's what you will have - yeah, that's what you will biotranslate, if I could use that word. Your biology will translate because that's the stuff that works for you. If I don't like "Laurel and Hardy," I won't laugh at it. You enjoy it, you will laugh at it. So we all have different likes and dislikes of humor. And of course, as you mentioned about Norman Cousins, he picked the type that worked for him.

FLATOW: And where do you - so you go further research from here?

Dr. BERK: Oh, the research continues. We continue to put the pieces of the puzzle together, in that we've shown back in late 1980s that we reduced stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are, by the way, immune-suppressive.

We showed, through the 1990s, that the immune system is actually enhanced -various components of the immune system are enhanced. That's - the same thing happens with exercise, by the way. That's why individuals who exercise on a regular basis have a lower propensity to infections and cancers.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How do you know it's not a placebo effect?

Dr. BERK: Ah. I'm going to use a term here - that's what was thrown at Norman Cousins all the time. The reason he was told he got well was because of the placebo effect. I can assure you, with this phraseology, that placebo is not nothing. In other words, there is - the placebo is a real phenomena. It is your own intrinsic pharmacology that's responding. If I believe in a particular perspective, I will have some sort of response.

I tell my students, how do you think the body hangs together if it doesn't talk to itself? So indeed, placebo in - relative to our belief systems, biotranslates. And indeed, that's the title of Norman's last work - book that he wrote, "Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit." So your beliefs elicit some translatable biology.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you and thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. BERK: You're more than welcome.

FLATOW: Lee S. Berk is a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunology researcher in the school of allied health and medicine at Loma Linda University.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: