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.

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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.

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.

By Débora (not verified) on 22 Feb 2010 #permalink

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

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.

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.

By edSanDiego (not verified) on 22 Feb 2010 #permalink

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.

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.

This seems to corroborate what Vonnegut wrote about humour:

"When Iâm being funny, I try not to offend. I donât think much of what Iâve done has been in really ghastly taste. I donât think I have embarrassed many people, or distressed them. The only shocks I use are an occasional obscene word. Some things arenât funny. I canât imagine a humorous book or skit about Auschwitz, for instance. And itâs not possible for me to make a joke about the death of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Otherwise I canât 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, thatâs 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 frustrationâone of several. A dog, he said, when he canât 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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

"I'm the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral
Can't understand what I mean?
Well, you soon will" - Barenaked Ladies

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.

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.

By Brian Slesinsky (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

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'?

By bruce anderson (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

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????

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.

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.

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. ;-)

How do you do?
I am 31 years old woman and I live in Venezuela, Santa Rosa. My interests it is a family and spiritual self-improvement. For a long time dreamed to make international friends

By Ailironaka (not verified) on 01 Oct 2010 #permalink

Saw Movies. Saw 7 3D: Trailers, Posters, News, Rumors of Saw VII

By ComSawNewMix (not verified) on 27 Oct 2010 #permalink

While playing poker: why does the dealer burn the top card befor turning over the following cards? does this have anthing to do with card counting?

By sexHongegence (not verified) on 21 Mar 2011 #permalink


By allernoni (not verified) on 09 Apr 2011 #permalink

Les services intimes et les numeros virtuels.
Je veux partager avec vous l'histoire de mon experience dans la provision d'un des services intimes. Oui-oui, - des services intimes.
Mon histoire est etrange d'une certaine facon. Je suis venu a londre afin d'entrer a l'universite national, pour etre exacte - c'est la Faculte des arts plastiques. Il s'est avere que mes scores ne sont pas assez bonnes pour etre accepte. ca etait une honte pour moi de rentrer a la maison et je n'avais pas assez de savoir-faire pour trouver un emploi normal. Comme je n'etais pas fille tres complexe, et mes talents de seduction etait bonnes - j'ai decide d'essayer dâoffrir aux hommes des services intimes. A Londre la demande de ce type de service est eleve .Pour commencer J'ai trouve un logement un peu chere mais pas tres loin de la rue principale, Il a resolu mes problemes financiers, en effet, pas pour longtemps, et, comme vous le comprenez - il est irreel de servir a un grand nombre de clients par jour. en plus -le proprietaire de la maison obtient la plus grande partie de l'argent gagne. Mon reve etait de se debarrasser de lâintermediaire et d'obtenir des clients fideles pour moi-meme. Et de ne pas travailler avec mon corp au meme temps. Le seul probleme etait - comment?
j'ai vu une annonce sur Internet qui permet dâavoir des numeros virtuels a Londre meme partout dans le monde. Pour etre honnete avec vous - au debut je ne pouvais pas saisir comment ca marche.mais avec quelques minutes de lecture sur leur site web je me suis entierement rendu compte - que c'est exactement ce que je dois faire. Alors, j'ai achete ce numero virtuel a Londre, qui est un numero de telephone local et qui me permet de diriger les appels entrants sur mon portable. Et meme si j'ai du payer pour le service de transfert d'appel c'etait la Meilleure facon de vendre mes conversations brulantes par telephone avec les hommes meme parfois avec des femmes ,Ce service a entierement couvert mes frais et m'a permis de gagner plus.
Alors seulement en restant a la maison, j'etais libre, et que le sexe par telephone ne necessite pas de contact physiques avec les clients - j'ai ete en mesure dâoffrir du plaisir a un plus grand nombre de clients. Le numero virtuel a egalement ete une une assurance pour ma securite - personne ne savait mon numero reel. C'est juste une solution parfaite pour ce genre de services!
Ce n'est pas que je vous recommande de fournir des services intimes, mais câest mon histoire et je la raconte pour vous - et vous pouvez toujours utiliser ma methode et mon experience pour en profiter du service des numeros virtuels dans vos affaires.
Un ans apres j'ai ete accepte a l'universite,et me voila dans mon atelier.

By PeleArepe (not verified) on 11 Apr 2011 #permalink

Well i was going to agree with the poster before me, it seemed like he had a valid point, and yet you deleted it. Whatâs the point of these blogs if you wont let genuine people comment? It just spoils it for me!

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!

By Susan Rose (not verified) on 19 May 2011 #permalink

Jim Quickly Realized That Playing Poker With Lady Gaga Was Not A Good Idea.

By Alkactolottok (not verified) on 20 May 2011 #permalink

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