You’re having a laugh?

September 15, 2011 at 8:53 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. Strange then, that the world’s pharmaceutical companies have yet to cotton on to this and develop a cure-all in the form of a simple laughing pill.

Could it be that the laughter/medicine link is simply cosy phraseology, with no actual link to biology? Well yes, of course it is – yet associations betwixt the two are, it seems, becoming apparent. So much so in fact that the study of the health benefits of laughter now has its own name – indeed, if you do ever happen upon a professor of parody, a doctor of drollery or a medic of mirth, then you’ll know they are proud members of the Gelotological circle.

Yet we can’t help think that the physical rendering of an emotional state rooted deep in the ancestral parts of our brains can surely achieve nothing of note medically? As you can tell, the inner cynic that constantly patrols the Science lite desk is growing ever more alert, growling and drooling like a distempic hound primed for its next kill.

So what, exactly, do these purveyors of prankery (…sorry, this will stop in a moment. Largely as we are rapidly running out of synonyms) think laughing will achieve medically speaking? Well, they say there are so many that we are resorting to bullet points. A cheeky chuckle will can:

  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Increase vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood.
  • Give a workout to the diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles.
  • Reduce certain stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
  • Increase the response of tumor- and disease-killing cells such as Gamma-interferon and T-cells.
  • Defend against respiratory infections–even reducing the frequency of colds–by immunoglobulon in saliva.
  • Increase memory and learning; in a study at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, humor during instruction led to increased test scores.
  • Improve alertness, creativity.

And so it appears our collective cynicism has been shot down in flames. The beast rests once again. It is the last two of these points that really strike home – essentially the gelotologists seem to be saying that a good, hearty guffaw could actually help you think. Interesting in its self of course, but especially as it is once again time for the Ig Nobels.

If you are not aware of the Ig Nobels – then let us introduce you to the highlight of the international scientific calendar. The Igs honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – although knowing what we now do from the insights of gelotology, perhaps that should be “first make people laugh and then make them think in an altogether more superior way”.

This year’s winners are to be announced on the 29th September, and while we’d dearly love to give you a rundown of the front runners, we’re afraid finding out nominees prior to the event has become harder than winning an actual Nobel Prize. So by way of a little appetite wetter, here are some of our favourite past winners.

First up is the winner of the 1994 entomology prize Robert A. Lopez. And what a winner he was – as scientifically dedicated as he was entirely out of his mind. In 1993 he published work in The Journal of the American Veternary Medical Association based on a series of experiments in which he obtained ear mites from cats, and proceeded to insert them into his own ear, whilst carefully observing and analysing the results.

Then we have Peter Fong of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who is definitely up there with Lopez in the ‘why would you do that’ stakes. In 1998 he won an Ig for his paper Induction and Potentiation of Parturition in Fingernail Clams (Sphaerium striatinum) by Selective Serotonin Re- Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). In short, he gave clams Prozac.

Our next pick comes from the 2000 psychology prize which was awarded to David Dunning of Cornell University and Justin Kruger of the University of Illinois, for a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Now, we are slightly reticent to publish the title of the paper for fear that our Editor will immediately assume it is a detailed description of the Science lite desk – but in the interests of accuracy here goes: Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.

And our final pick of the Igs goes to the Medicine winners of 2010 – Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University – for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride. Why? Well it turns out that positive emotions at the end of the ride helped sufferers with breathlessness. Someone should report this to the Gelotological gang – yet more evidence that laughter can be the best medicine.

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