In some cases, a fit of the giggles is no laughing matter. While laughing enhances cardiovascular function, fortifying your immune and endocrine systems, what your laughter says about your health might not always be good news, according to science. For the most part, laughter is associated with positive feelings, and can even be used as a cognitive-behavioral therapy. But, if you've ever noticed in the movies that a sinister character is often has a specific type of laughter (think the Joker in the Batman franchise), this is because laughter can also suggest underlying illness.
An article recently published on The Conversation explains that laughter is a vital component of adaptive social, emotional, and cognitive function — and it's not unique to humans. Some animals laugh too, which may have originally been a technique used to help them survive because laughter promotes bonding, diffuses potential conflict, and eases stress and anxiety. However, there's a dark side to laughter, too: "It loses its momentum quickly when indulged in alone (solitary laughter can have ominous connotations)," the article states.
So, what causes different types of laughter? A study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine classifies laughter into five types: genuine and spontaneous; simulated (fake); stimulated (by tickling); induced (by drugs); and pathological.
Laughter As A Symptom Of Illness
The study, "Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review," explains that pathological laughter is the result of secondary injuries to the central nervous system caused by various temporary or permanent neurological diseases, and may also occur with certain psychiatric disorders.
"Pathological laughter is developed with no specific stimulus, is not connected with emotional changes, has no voluntary control of its duration, intensity or facial expression, and sometimes comes with 'pathological crying,'" study author Jongeun Yim of the Physical Therapy at Sahmyook University in Seoul, South Korea writes.
Laughter can also be a symptom a neurological disorder. When I was a teenager, and visiting my grandparents in Las Vegas, my grandfather suddenly became very, very funny. By nature he was not a funny guy, but suddenly on the way back from dinner he began telling jokes, and laughing hysterically while slapping his knee. This was so out of character for him that instead of going home we drove to the hospital where the doctor confirmed he'd had a small stroke.
Out-of-character laughter can also be a sign of pseudobulbar affect syndrome, a condition that causes uncontrollable crying and/or laughing that happens suddenly and frequently. The syndrome can be an indicator of traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia, or like in my grandfather's case, a stroke.
The Conversation cites a number of other conditions that give people the giggles that could be associated with abnormal brain wiring, like Gelotophobia, an intense fear of being laughed at. On the flip side, Gelotophilia describes the enjoyment of being laughed at, while katagelasticism is enjoying a laugh at the expense of others.
"Gelotophobia, in particular, can develop into an extreme, joy-sapping anxiety that ranges from social ineptness to severe depression. It may induce vigilant environmental monitoring for any signs of ridicule," the article states. "This abnormal fear of being mocked may arise from negative early life experiences of being teased, mocked, or laughed at."
For people with these conditions, laugher might not be the best medicine after all, but rather a symptom of an illness.
Laughter As Therapy
In absence of any pathology, having a good laugh has myriad positive benefits, and laugh therapy is even being used as a method of cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat stress and depression. While laugh therapy has been around since ancient Greece (sometimes it takes us a while to catch on), it wasn't until the 20th century that its benefits were taken seriously, when Sunday Review of America editor Norman Cousins accidentally used it to treat pain.
"Cousins suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, and realized at the age of 50 that he did not feel pain for two hours when he laughed while watching TV comedy programs," Yim notes in the study.
Cousins later wrote a book, Anatomy of an Illness, where he likened laughter ti "a bulletproof vest." He later went on to become a professor and studied the effectiveness of laughter on health, and is often referred to as the father of laughter therapy. Aside from treating physical pain, laughter can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
"Laughter helps people endure stressful processes or situations, reduces depression, helps people judge their problems objectively, and improves problem-solving ability by increasing insight," Yim writes.
Fake It 'Till You Make It
Even if you're not in the mood to laugh, forcing yourself to have a good giggle can help lighten your mood. "A positive mood can be gained through the forced laugh, and a bad mood, personality, or thought can be changed somewhat into a positive direction," notes Yim.
Why does this happen? Just like most things, it's all in your head, or more accurately your brain. Laughing increases endorphins and helps maintain dopamine activity. So, if you're feeling a little down, force a laugh. Let's all do it together. Bahahahaha, hahahaha, hahahaha. Feel better yet? I know I do.