Discuss the physiological changes that occur in humour

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Topic 4

Discuss the physiological changes that occur in humour, differentiating between laughter and silent appreciation of humour. How strong is the research evidence for these physiological changes?

Theories of humour

Perspective from the humanities

The humanities have been concerned with the nature of comedy and laughter. "Without laughter life on our planet would be intolerable" (Steven Allen, 1981) and the comedy had critics from ancient Greeks to present. Comedy relabels man's imperfection, leaves him more tolerant, and gives him the courage to face life. This is theme of most comedy writers and comedians. Comedy is not just a happy as opposed to an unhappy ending, but a way of surveying life. (Kronenberger, 1952).

Philosophical perspective

From this perspective, humour is the enjoyment of the misfortunes of others and comedy is an imitation of men at their worst. There are two ingredients in Morreall's theory (1983,1987), one is a change of psychological state, which can be cognitive/ perceptual or affective/ emotional and two is that must be pleasant.

His laughter theory is the physical activity, which end result of laughter with nature expression of amusement.

Incongruity theories

This theory has been considered as a classic traditional theory. Surprise, ambivalence, conflict and incongruity have been humorous experience. There must be a sudden "shock" or conflict of ideas or emotions, which produces the absurdity resulting in a burst of laughter. As Monroe (1951) described the experience of ambivalent emotions "we laugh whenever, on contemplating an object or situation, we find opposite emotions struggling within us for mastery."

Research found the physiological changes that occur in humour

Blood, heart and muscular

William Fry (1987, 1992) who was the first to examine the physiological correlates of humour has described what seem to be the paradoxical effects of laughter upon stress- related physiological processes.

Fry found that humour, specifically; laughter was associated with signs of arousal. The laughter resulted in physiological changes including rapid increases in blood pressure, heart rate and muscular spasms, each of which is commonly associated with anxiety arousal.

As Fry noted, such changes rapidly dissipate with muscle relaxation quickly following laughter along with decreases in blood pressure and heart rate. In other words, the physiological changes occurring with laughter bear initial similarity to those in evidence during stressful circumstances, but their duration is shorter and the return to a relaxed state is very rapid.

Skin and heart rate

Other investigator, Langevin and Day (1972) link between humour laughter and sympathetic nervous system activation. They found skin conductance and heart rate changes indicating adrenal arousal among their subjects when they were exposed to humour stimuli.

Immune system

Lefcourt, Davidson, and Kueneman (1990) was established the linkage between humour and immune system functioning and found that the presentation of humorous material resulted in increased concentrations of S-IgA.

Dillon et al., (1985) found that laughter induced by a humorous videotape led to significant increase in concentrations of salivary immunoglobulin A (S-IgA) as the measure of immune system activity. S-IgA is reputed to be the body's first line of defence against upper respiratory viral and bacterial infection Tomas (1976).

Study found by Mel Brook's (2000), when the humour material almost universally rated as being highly funny by our subject and S-IgA increases substantially.

Berk et al., (1988; 1998) have reported that mirthful laughter elicited during a humorous film was associated with increased spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis and natural killer-cell activity.

Overall, these findings suggest that humour may serve to reduce negative affect or increase positive affect, which disinherits potential immune system activity. There is evidence that male and female differ with regard to the effects of humour. Females who assert that they use humour to ameliorate stressful condition seem to draw benefits from that predilection, showing fewer signs of physiological and distress in those conditions than their less humour-prone peers. However, among male this finding is less clear, with humour-prone males seeming to be more distressed than their less humour using peers.

Humour in health care setting

Humour is familiar pattern of communication which both health professionals and patients now. It bring with them into the health care setting. As we know health and illness are "serious business", humour is not an expected occurrence. However, humour indirect from communication, one that is casual and inconspicuously blended into general flow of events.

There are three contributions to understanding of humour in health setting and basic study from Robinson (1970/78). Humour serves three major functions: a communication function, a social function, and a psychological function. I'd like to make a discussion force on a communication function more then other two.

A communication function

A communication function that means we send messages to others so others understand, share our feeling and they laughter. Firstly, The messages, which need to be communication within health care setting, are usually very serious and emotional such as anxiety, fear, anger, grief and hope. Their direct expression is not acceptable or uncomfortable. Humour convey these feeling in an indirect fashion and provides a vehicle for moving easily in or out of the serious as the situation warrants.

Secondly, in times of illness, patients and health care professional are suddenly have to thrown together, into very intimate and somber contacts. The patients must trust the health care professionals but there is no time to build a relationship. In other side, the professionals also expect patients almost without question and treatments and life and death decision. Humour meets these criteria and is highly suitable for this kind of interaction (Emerson, 1963).

Emerson found that pleasantries around standard topic established the sense of familiarity. This mild form of humour, including banter and jocular talk, provided the flexibility for easily terminating the interaction or for moving into more "serious" humour and a serious discussion. Humour is often used in the health care setting to "test the waters" to open up a serious discussion.

Social functions

The health care setting is one in which many of the rules of the normal society are disrupted, violated, or suspended. The patient is placed in dependent role, most of them behaviour will different when they are before. Humour provides a mechanism for coping with these disruptive social acts and all the external pressures imposed by the society and system. It assists in establishing relationships. Reduces the social conflicts, social change and survival in the system.

Psychological functions

Humour often is a major coping mechanism. It relieves anxiety and tension. Joking and humour is often seen in areas like emergency room, operating threat. The level of jocular talks and jokes by staff will indicate the level of tension and anxiety. In other words, there is a need to laugh to reduce the tension. Sexual, aggressive and gallows humour, areas about which we have the most feelings, will produce the greatest laughter.

Differentiating between laughter and silent appreciation of humour

Humour is described in relation to laughter, with laughter as the indicator that humour had occurred. There are many other behavioural responses, which considered indication of amusement: a twinkling of the eyes, change in facial expression or giggle. There are a myriad of related terms to describe humour, such as joking, cartoons and comedy, etc.

Humour leads to laughter have three parts process: a cognitive communication leading to an emotional response of amusement, pleasure and mirth, which results in behavioural physical response of laughter and its counterparts.

Duchenne laughter

Duchenne laughter could be described as laughter involving both mouth and eyes as "full laughter", and non-Duchenne laughter involves only the mouth. Duchenne laughter involves both zygomatic major muscle action, which pulls the lip corners up obliquely and orbicularis oculi muscle action, which pull the skin from the cheeks and forehead toward the eyeballs.

A study have used observations of laughter, humour, enjoyment, and amusement exhibited during interviews six months after the loss of spouse as predictive indicators of how well people come to terms with bereavement (Bonanno& Keltner, 1997). These investigators found difference in adjustment favouring survivors who manifest Duchenne laughter while speaking about their former partners. They felt less anger and were experiencing increased enjoyments in contrast to the period of time immediately following their spouse's death.

The research indicates that the full laughter display, like humour as we have described it, reflects a distancing from grief or dysphoria that allow the person to recover and enjoy life more fully. It indicated verbal claims to emotional responses by heart rate change. Duchenne laughter was more strongly related to self-report of reduced anger.

Keltner and Bonanno only found little relationship between non-Duchenne laughter or smiling with self-report emotions, whereas Duchenne laughs or Duchenne smiles were both positively associated with positive emotion

Using humour as the best medicine

A patient with cancer was admitted to the Oncology unit tense, hostile, unable to express her feelings. A doctor walked into the room with a 3-foot plastic inflated speculum! The patient burst out laughing and then she began to cry. It broke the ice! After that the doctor spent the next hour helping her with her feelings and fear of dying.

Film Patch Adams is a storey about student doctor, who doesn't look, act or think like any other medicine, and he is willing to do just about any to make his patients laughter, even if it means risking his own career. Based on a true story, Patch Adams combines side-splitting humour with an inspiring story that transcends the traditional comedy.

A study of storytelling, humour and learning in medicine

Professor Sir Kenneth Calman, KCB, FRSE, Vice-Chancellor and Warden, University of Durham

Clin Med JRCPL 2001; 1:227-9

Story telling is a fundamental part of clinical practice. It provides the mechanism by which doctors and patients communicate and understand the meaning of illness and possible ways of dealing with it. Humour is a particular aspect of story telling and, while there are some negative aspects, generally does have a therapeutic benefit. The physiological effects of laughter are considerable. Both story telling and humour are important for learning and are complementary to the more formal learning from textbooks and lectures. Stories assist in the development of emotional knowledge. The hypothesis of the contagious theory of behaviour change is presented as a way in which ideas are transmitted from one person to another.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

· Vocabulary Development

· Reading Exercise

· Writing Exercise

· Grammar Exercise

Many people also agree that having a sense of humour can come in handy when you are frustrated or disappointed. If someone has a sense of humour, it means that he/she is able to appreciate a good joke or a funny situation. It is important to mention that laughter is not the same as humour. Laughter is our body's physiological response to humour.

Laughter increases the number of "T-cells" in our immune system; consequently, our body is able to fight disease and infection. Laughter is also beneficial for our physical well-being. When we laugh, the muscles in our diaphragm and abdomen get a real workout. That is the reason that many people feel exhausted after laughing at a funny joke, or after watching a sitcom on television.

So what makes something funny? Humour is generally created by one of the following conditions:

something unexpected happens

someone says something unexpected

something terrible happens to someone

something embarrassing happens to someone else

someone does something silly

a visual juxtaposition

Laughter can result from something we hear or from something we see. You can giggle at a joke you hear at work or school; or laugh when you see a funny comic strip in the newspaper. Although humour has many benefits, it is something that should be used only in an appropriate manner or context. Jokes that are insulting to a specific culture, gender, or religion are considered rude and insulting. So next time you're in a bad mood, why not take a dose of laughter!



Allen, S. (1981). Funny people. New York: Stein & Day.

Fry, W.F., Jr., & Salameh, W. A. (eds.)(1987). Handbook of humour and psychotherapy: advances n the clinical use of humour. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Exchange.

Kronenberger, L (1952). The thread of laughter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Langevin, R.& Day,H.I.(1972)Physiologcial correlates of humour. In J. H. Goldstein & P.E.McGhee (eds.), the psychology of humour, New York: Academic Press.

Lefcourt, Herbert M (2001) Humour: the Psychology of living buoyantly

Robinson, VM (1991) Humour and the health professions: the therapeutic use of humour in health care. Thorofare, N.J.: SLACK

Robinson, V.M.(1970/78). Humour in nursing. In C. Carlson & B. Blackwell (eds.), Behavioural concepts and nursing interventon, 2nd Ed Philadelphia: Lippincott.