The Frontal Cortex

Laughter and Grief

A few weeks ago, I got an email wondering why people sometimes “break into uncontrollable laughter or smiling when faced with terrible situations, like death or illness.” Where does this perverse emotional reaction come from? Why do we smile at the most inappropriate times?

I looked into the peer-reviewed literature and didn’t find much. While there have been some interesting fMRI studies of our comedic circuits, I don’t think that references to the left posterior temporal gyrus explain very much.* Our anatomy is always interesting, but localizing the laughter reflex won’t tell us why we laugh instead of cry, or why there are so many smiles at funerals.

Freud, of course, had an eloquent speculation on this paradox. In his 1928 investigation into humor, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Freud argued that laughter was a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with the unspeakable pain of everyday life. He gives the example of a prisoner about to locked in the gallows, who says to his guard: “Well, this is a good beginning to the week”. The prisoner makes a joke because he doesn’t want to cry; his ego distracts his conscious brain from the unspeakable misery of the moment.

I’ve always been intrigued by Henri Bergson’s theory of humor. (For one thing, it explains why Judd Apatow is making the same basic jokes as Aristophanes. Shit and puke and farts will always be comedic gold.) Bergson defined comedy as what happens when the mechanical is foisted upon the living, when man is momentarily machine-like (think of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, or all the physical comedy in The Hangover). We laugh out of relief that our rigid state is only temporary – tragedy is when it’s permanent – and that, after the man acts like a repetitive robot, or is betrayed by his automated body, our innate elan vital asserts itself. Life eludes the “mechanical inelasticity” of matter. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be alive. Consider the man slipping on a banana peel. The scene is funny because for just a moment the man acts like a thing, plummeting to the floor with a thud.

What does this have to do with paradoxical laughter? What can Freud and Bergson and the temporal gyrus tell us about those irrepressible smiles in the face of pain? I don’t know. The point, I guess, is that laughter isn’t just about comedy. Behind every joke is a temporary tragedy, a man slipping and falling on a peel he should have seen. We see ourselves as a material thing – a piece of awkward matter, with intestines and gravitational mass – which reminds us that we’re hopelessly mortal. Life is short. Why not laugh?

* The most revealing thing about this neural anatomy is that it seems to overlap with the neural correlates of aha moments. This supports Arthur Koestler’s idea that “getting the joke” and “solving the problem” are really the same basic mental process. A punchline is a eureka moment in miniature.

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    February 22, 2010

    You’re kidding, right?

  2. #2 Michael F. Martin
    February 22, 2010

    I would categorize Bergson’s with the nonsocial theory of laughter. Laughter can also be a profoundly social activity. For that kind of laughter, I prefer Ted Cohen’s theory of jokes.

  3. #3 Débora
    February 22, 2010

    It makes sense when you think that your brain uses Laughter as a mechanism to pretend suffering. People from countries which had much suffering in their history, usually laugh much more than the others. Brazilian laugh more than the Portugueses, Irish laugh more than English. And when you cry, it seems that your brain just block alternatives to find solutions for problems.

  4. #4 Rebel
    February 22, 2010

    Traditional Chinese Medicine has incorporated laughter in parts of their diagnosis. Perhaps there are some connections?

  5. #5 Karen
    February 22, 2010

    I once worked on a team installing a flight simulator far from home, working 18-to-20-hour days. We used humor to keep from strangling each other and tearing the equipment apart during the frustrating episodes where something just wouldn’t work, and it looked as though we were NEVER going to get the damned thing working and get back home.

    The jokes were mostly off-the-cuff, with a distinct note of black humor, and the more exhausted we were, the funnier they were. The support team, who were local and working regular hours, thought we were insane by the time we finished. But in the end the damn thing worked, we got a flight home, and we were still friends.

  6. #6 edSanDiego
    February 22, 2010

    A laugh invokes a release of endorphins. Someone with an established history of pain and suffering may develop a sense of humor to help them deal with particularly awful situations in their life. After a while, this can be habit forming, like any mild addiction, to the point where jokes in the face of adversity become an emotional response not a prefrontal response.

    Feel free to quote me in your next book (kidding). There is going to be another, right? Just finished How We Decide. Great work.

  7. #7 John
    February 22, 2010

    Laughter & grief? Like a horse & carriage. In 40 years of officiating at funerals, I found there had to be a laugh, or at least a smile, for the service to accomplish its purposes: celebrating a life, and encouraging survivors to move on with life.
    At my Dad’s “visiting hours” (= a Protestant wake) my brother nudged me and whispered the punchline of one of Dad’s favorite jokes (a hilarious, terrible joke about a corpse dressed in the wrong suit) and we both laughed loud and long…a far better memorial to dear old Dad than any eulogy could have been.

  8. #8 Was Once
    February 22, 2010

    The moment I starting laughing at myself(gesturing), even in the hospital bed after landing two strokes from a Dr error, everyone knew I would be back. I had no speech, and a stomach tube and still not walking. I had to access this ability upon being dumped at home just 5 weeks after my coma. When I would get down, I would wallow for a while, and then get tired of me. Then would would flip and laugh enough to realize this was the only way to heal.
    One has to stop taking yourself too seriously, our ego is all made up.

  9. #9 Peter
    February 23, 2010

    This seems to corroborate what Vonnegut wrote about humour:

    “When I’m being funny, I try not to offend. I don’t think much of what I’ve done has been in really ghastly taste. I don’t think I have embarrassed many people, or distressed them. The only shocks I use are an occasional obscene word. Some things aren’t funny. I can’t imagine a humorous book or skit about Auschwitz, for instance. And it’s not possible for me to make a joke about the death of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Otherwise I can’t think of any subject that I would steer away from, that I could do nothing with. Total catastrophes are terribly amusing, as Voltaire demonstrated. You know, the Lisbon earthquake is funny.

    I saw the destruction of Dresden. I saw the city before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterward, and certainly one response was laughter. God knows, that’s the soul seeking some relief.

    Any subject is subject to laughter, and I suppose there was laughter of a very ghastly kind by victims in Auschwitz.

    Humor is an almost physiological response to fear. Freud said that humor is a response to frustration—one of several. A dog, he said, when he can’t get out a gate, will scratch and start digging and making meaningless gestures, perhaps growling or whatever, to deal with frustration or surprise or fear.

    And a great deal of laughter is induced by fear.”

  10. #10 bookeywookey
    February 23, 2010

    I know that we associate laughter with humor and tears with sadness but for the purposes of studying them it would be a mistake to conflate the emotion and the behavior. Both produce diaphragmatic spasms and often tears, but through different masks (perhaps?). My acting teacher self used to notice that in working on a scene in which an actor released a good deal of emotion (a challenge that many actors make into their Everest)if you could get the actor to one deep emotion they then had access to them all.

  11. #11 Trista Meehan
    February 23, 2010

    Laughter promotes healing– I’m certain of it. And it’s a learned response.

    A few weeks ago, my house burned to the ground, and I lost nearly everything I owned; I almost lost my life. But even that night, I was cracking a few rather dark jokes with some of my friends (albeit aided by a couple of cocktails). Humor can be relied on to “get me through”; because it’s been an effective coping & healing mechanism in the past, I often turn to humor in times of crisis.

  12. #12 Karla McLaren
    February 23, 2010

    I think it’s a good idea to look at the origins of laughter and crying, because both provide socio-emotional information to the people around us.

    Last year’s data on chimps and laughing was very interesting, since the laughter elicited from the chimps was related to the surprise and mild pain of being tickled.
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/06/evolutionlaughter/

    I would say that many forms of laughter are responses to pain of one kind or another. As, of course, is crying or other more obvious signs of grief.

    When you get into a very intense bout of crying, the breathing patterns and sounds are very similar to intense bouts of laughter. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell if someone in an intense bout of one isn’t in the throes of the other, until their social signals become more obvious.

    For me, feeling the two, I’d say they are connected in the brain. I will often begin to laugh after a long bout of crying or grief (and we’ve all laughed so hard that we’ve started to cry) and both of these transitions feel natural rather than dichotomous.

  13. #13 Karla McLaren
    February 23, 2010

    Of course, the data were interesting. Doh!

  14. #14 DJDG
    February 24, 2010

    “I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral
    Can’t understand what I mean?
    Well, you soon will” – Barenaked Ladies

  15. #15 Portland therapist
    February 25, 2010

    From the viewpoint of somatic psychology, laughter could be considered an energetic discharge as is crying.

  16. #16 Mike M
    February 26, 2010

    I know there are studies that show that most laughter isn’t about humor so much as it is a signal to others of our mental state. It’s a form on non-linguistic communication that we use to signal all sorts of things like non-threat (I’m laughing so you know I’m not too serious), strength (I’m laughing so you know I can handle this), bonding (I’m laughing with you, not at you), etc.

  17. #17 Brian Slesinsky
    February 27, 2010

    My favorite explanation (based on V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain) is that laughter is a kind of all-clear signal, often given after determining that an apparent danger is over. You might laugh at the man slipping on the banana peel because you know it’s just a movie and nothing bad really happened, or because he immediately leaps up again and is fine, or perhaps because he seemed threatening at first but turned out to be much less so after he fell. Or you might hear someone say something that seems very strange but then figure out that it makes sense as friendly wordplay. Black humor can show that you share a common understanding in a bad situation, as a small step towards mitigating it; yes, someone died and that was scary but the rest of us are still okay. This would explain why laughter seems forced or desperate when someone is still scared.

  18. #18 bruce anderson
    February 28, 2010

    I sense that the essay is skating a fine line without incorporating the most salient feature of humor … that is that as Westerners we believe that laughter has a health function. I doubt whether Norman cousins first incorporated this line of counseling. But I conjecture that there is a hidden paradox here: why do the great humorists end up misanthropically addled? Mark Twain, Geo. Carlin, K. Vonnegut, Jr. had a raging misanthopy when they died .. so is humor ‘healthy’?

  19. #19 Jerry M.
    February 28, 2010

    I think what many are saying here, is that humor can shake us out of a rigid reference perception frame. And potentionaly let us see from a different angle and get us unstuck so to speak. It’s the unexpected , unpredicted intrusion , that suddenly allows us to see from a different perspective, and perhaps reorder our catorization of that perception. And can’t that also be healing in some circumstances????

  20. #20 PEG
    March 2, 2010

    The benefits of a good belly laugh are well known and documented. So much so that there is a whole movement that is bringing people together in what’s touted as a healing and spiritual experience: Laughter Yoga. I suppose even artificially-triggered laughter may provide the benefits of an authentic chuckle, but I haven’t tried it to know.

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    April 28, 2010

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  22. #22 medyum
    May 12, 2010

    The benefits of a good belly laugh are well known and documented. So much so that there is a whole movement that is bringing people together in what’s touted as a healing and spiritual experience: Laughter Yoga. I suppose even artificially-triggered laughter may provide the benefits of an authentic chuckle, but I haven’t tried it to know.

  23. #23 medyum
    May 12, 2010

    Fascinating how gender stereotypes differ between cultures. Where I come from*, women just know how much of everything they need, and men painstakingly count the grams and milliliters. * Though, actually, maybe it’s just my sister. ;-)

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    May 4, 2011

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  34. #34 Susan Rose
    May 19, 2011

    As an Emeregency Room nurse I have often seen devastating, and horrible situations with terrible outcomes. I have found that our team often times talk about lunch,and start cracking jokes, to the horror and dismay of other personnel from various departments in the hospital. We have talked about it as a group, and have come to the conclusion that if we didn’t have the stress relief of off color jokes and gallows laughter, we wouldn’t be able to carry on with our daily work, and be effective in our committment to our patients. I do believe it is the brains way of helping one to cope with the autrocities in life we face every day. Great article!

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