Learning Lab

The Neuroscience of Whether to Laugh or Cry this Christmas

By Amy Brann

Last year I wrote a post on the neuroscience of Christmas overwhelm for Huffington Post. On the 29th November this year, I’d started to feel it. That’s too early in my book. In early December I was giving a talk on the neuroscience of laughter. A Coach who uses laughter and confrontation in his work was sure that laughter helped his corporate clients – and wanted to know why.

Do you ever feel any mild dread in the run up to Christmas? Slight fears that you’re going to have to be extra tolerant, extra patient, extra nice. All while you’re probably extra exhausted.

Of course, these are considered good traits, and at an extra special time of year wouldn’t it be lovely if we could be on our very best behaviour? But what do you think about the trait of honesty? Most people also place some value on it too.

What can you do when Aunt Mavis starts going on about her arthritis again or one of her favourite soaps (that you’ve never watched)? Or when your friend asks what you think of her new outfit she wants to wear to the Christmas party to try to impress Bob? (It’s hideous and definitely does make her bum look big in it). She’s just spent a fortune on it. And who knows what you do when Charles is extra grumpy on Boxing Day, not saying anything but generally bringing the whole spirit down?

Essentially, there is still a lot more research to be done on what exactly is going on during laughter and humour in the brain. What we do know is very enlightening though. I’m going to share what the current picture looks like, and then add my own extra (currently unproven) thoughts.

So we know that we have expectations, social, physical, linguistically etc. What we expect to happen is sometimes called the script or the frame. Our frontal lobes are involved in making sense of this script and specifically, our working memory juggles holding the script and the situation or joke or reality. The closing of this gap can lead to laughter.

Laughter has been called ‘the brain’s reward for discovering unexpected errors’. If we were to say to Aunt Mavis mid-soap rant “Oh I know, it’s been all I can think of all week” she may laugh. Her brain may hold the script she had been working off, that everyone loves her soap as much as her, and then process the comment from her niece and realise that there is actually a gap between those two. In fact, her brain has discovered an error in her presumption.

It is proposed that there are two stages to finding something funny, the first is detection – where the left inferior frontal and posterior temporal cortices on the left side of the brain are involved. The second is appreciation – when we get the ‘joke’ and our amygdala triggers the release of dopamine and spindle cells transmit serotonin and endorphins across the brain.

We are all, to varying degrees, skilled at reading people. This means things like we can tell a fake laugh from a real one. Many of us can also tell a real compliment from a fake one. What is going to be of most value to those we love? A lie that they could identify as such. The lie, which may not sit quite right with them, because they have their own uncertainties about the outfit too? Or the truth, delivered in a way that makes you both laugh?

Laughter is considered to have high social value. It helps bond us together. It deepens our relationships. It also makes the bad news or things we don’t want to hear easier.

“Charles, will you please be quiet, you just have me in stitches with all your funny stories and craziness”. Charles’ brain may take a few moments to process the difference between his script (grumpy old man) and this comment until he is tickled by his brain discovering the mismatch. He will then get his hit of happy hormones and hopefully put him in a better mood.

christmas-cookies-553457_1920Giving the gift of honesty this year, especially if you can wrap it up in humour, is a truly wonderful gift. Putting aside your fear of social rejection, coming to situations with love and respect – and telling the truth – I believe helps deepen relationships and improve trust. Revolutionary isn’t it?

So why is laughter magical at this time of year? Well, it is magical any time of year – and that is because it can lower cortisol levels, increase immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems and put psychological distance between our problems and ourselves. It is also highly contagious.

What better way to diffuse any Christmas stress and tension than to laugh, and get the rest of your family and friends to laugh too!

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