When Laughter Is Bad for You

When Laughter Is Bad for You

Why you should care

They say that laughter is the best medicine, but did you know that it can also kill you?

You know that feeling when you’re helpless with laughter, unable to speak or even breathe? Well, you’re not alone. Elsewhere in the universe a group of rats is giggling, chimps are chortling and, yes, your dog really is grinning at you. But there’s a dark side to giggling too.

But first: “Laughter is the only positive emotion that’s universally expressed,” says Dr. Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, who has led landmark studies of the world’s greatest bonding experience. “It’s practiced by remote tribes who don’t share our culture, and it also crosses species — tickle a rat or chimp and you’ll get the same spontaneous chuckle as when you tickle a baby.”

According to Dr. Scott, laughter is actually trying to kill you: “It stops you breathing in, and you’re literally rendered helpless by things you find so funny you can’t stop. When you laugh hard, your blood pressure goes up and you place a lot of pressure on the thorax, which can put people already at risk of cardiac problems at even greater risk.”

Not convinced? Death from laughter has been recorded through the ages, from the legend of Zeuxis — a painter in fifth-century B.C. Athens who couldn’t stop chortling over the intentionally hideous image of Aphrodite he created — to recent cases like that of Damnoen Saen-um, a Thai ice cream salesman who perished in 2003 after his wife couldn’t rouse him after two minutes of continuous laughter in his sleep. Other fatalities include Alex Mitchell, a Brit whose heart gave out while he was guffawing over a TV comedy sketch show in 1975, and Ole Bentzen, a Dane who experienced the same fate in 1989 after watching a scene in A Fish Called Wanda.

When it’s not trying to kill you, however, a hearty chuckle is good for you. Professor Bob Levenson of the University of California, Berkeley found that people who laugh together enjoy longer and healthier relationships, and Scott’s latest research explores the bonding aspects of shared laughter. “When measuring brain scans of subjects, we found laughter was contagious — even though they were told not to laugh, when they heard others laughing in the background, we saw from their brain patterns that they were getting ready to join in.”

Other dangers posed by laughter

  • Fainting
  • Cardiac and oesophageal rupture
  • Asthma attacks
  • Interlobular emphysema
  • Cataplexy (muscular collapse while remaining conscious)
  • Headaches
  • Jaw dislocation
  • Stress incontinence

If that’s not bad enough, pathological laughter has also been associated with tumors, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and motor neuron disease.

The act of laughing releases endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals you also get from exercise, says Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University. In a series of studies in which a pain source was applied both before and after bouts of social laughter, Dunbar found laughing increased participants’ resistance to pain.

Even more surprising, it’s possible that laughter can increase the chances of getting pregnant. A study of women entertained by a clown after undergoing IVF and embryo transfer showed that nearly twice the number (36 vs. 20 percent) conceived compared with the control group who hadn’t been treated to a giggle.

Sadly, there will always be people who simply don’t get the joke; that’s because they’re gelotophobes — people who are actually afraid of laughter. Scientists have been studying their kind since 2008. Surprisingly, Brits suffer the most, with 13 percent of the population affected.

So whether you agree that laughter is the best medicine, it’s something we all share, human and animal alike. And that’s got to be reason enough to smile. Just be careful.

This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 6, 2014.

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