Dr. Lee S. Berk followed a path rarely taken by scientists. He asked himself: If a particular tenet of ancient wisdom handed down for millennia is correct, can it be proven in a laboratory? For Dr. Berk’s research team, a Judeo-Christian passage from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs provided the inspiration. The question: “Is laughter healthy?” The answer is “YES”!
Since 1985, Dr. Berk and his colleagues at Loma Linda University have been conducting and publishing their research findings for medical and scientific audiences who, up until recently, were often unresponsive. However, his patience and tenacity paid off: The evidence is unquestionable and no clinician or researcher today doubts the biological value of laughter. Further, Dr. Berk, who earned his Ph.D. in public health, is regularly interviewed on CNN, 60 Minutes, The Discovery Channel, BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Korean Broadcasting System, and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The ability to intentionally create happiness and health exists within us and people want to know about it.
The type of laughter that Berk and his team studied is specific: Mirthful laughter that arises from happiness is very distinct from the kind of laughter that often accompanies emotions such as embarrassment and anxiety. This research covers a broad range of biology: endocrinology, immunology, psychobiology, neurology and genetics.
Mirthful laughter that arises from happiness is very distinct from the kind of laughter that often accompanies emotions such as embarrassment and anxiety.
SuperConsciousness Magazine Science Editor Danielle Graham spoke with Dr. Berk about the implications of his 23-year study of laughter.
SC: Dr. Berk, your research and study of humor and laughter are really pointing towards the fact that within each of us is an innate, undeveloped ability to heal ourselves.
LB: Yes. The question is: can humor be part of the process of healing one’s self, or helping to heal one’s self or does laughing have therapeutic value? My interest in studying humor really came to me as an idea from the ancients. There exists substantial wisdom in the past, from those who preceded us; for example, in the Old Testament of the Bible, in Proverbs it states: “A merry heart does good like a medicine.” And the question was for me as a medical scientist researcher, “Is it really true? Laughter, as a representation of a merry heart, does it have any biological effects? Is it beneficial to helping us “stay” well, or get well and can it be used in the medical health care arena?”
SC: You have stated that laughter creates conditions which chemically inject the immune system with agents to strengthen it.
LB: Some of the observations or results of the studies we have done look at what the impact or the effect of humor and the resultant mirthful or happy laughter have on our biology, and by biology I mean the chemicals that we produce when we laugh or when we’re happy. Some of these substances we produce are good for us such as endorphins, the chemical associated with the runner’s high. Well, those substances are also elevated relative to happy laughter. The immune system likes endorphins because they help turn up key components of the immune system that help keep us well and healthy.
Biologically, there are other substances known as stress hormones such as adrenalin and the steroid called cortisol which has been in the news recently because of all the athletes who have been taking steroids to help build muscle mass. But steroids and cortisol are really detrimental to the immune system. Cortisol, along with adrenalin, actually suppresses the immune system when under chronic stress. This continuous state is not conducive for helping us fight infections, viruses or even possibly cancers.
SC: So then, adrenalin and cortisol are present in the body to produce a different kind of result, for the body to behave in a different kind of way than healing. Adrenalin and the cortisol are there because they are important for other types of physiological states. However, having them regularly produce at high levels is not conducive for health of the immune system.
LB: That’s correct. Cortisol and adrenalin are there to help us with emergency situations. Most of us have heard of the Fight or Flight response meaning that when we have an emergency scenario, we release these chemicals, such as adrenalin and cortisol, to help us cope with the situation physiologically, biologically. They are necessary to react to immediate or acute situations and therefore beneficial. The problem is that we tend to prolong the long-term stress psychologically, and in doing so we end up producing cortisol and adrenalin on a long-term basis. And, that condition is potentially dangerous or detrimental to our health and well being.
SC: So if mirthful or happy laughter can affect our stress-related chemical state of cortisol and adrenalin, creating instead elevated endorphins, laughter, then, is an excellent way to relieve or remove us from unhealthy physiological related stress.
LB: That’s absolutely correct. Mirthful or happy laughter is much like moderate exercise and we see the same or similar biological responses to both laughter and moderate exercise. When we laugh, experience a happy event or when we exercise at a moderate level we decrease the chronic release of cortisol and adrenalin and increase the release of the endorphins, enhancing the impact, the healthy effects on the immune system.
When we laugh, experience a happy event or when we exercise at a moderate level we decrease the chronic release of cortisol and adrenalin and increase the release of the endorphins, enhancing the impact, the healthy effects on the immune system.
SC: Your research findings also indicate that not only does the body produce a chemistry that supports the immunological system during mirthful or happy laughter but also by simply anticipating mirthful or happy laughter experiences, the body will begin shifting the biological chemistry to an immune supporting state. Can you explain how you were able to determine that research-wise?
LB: Really, it’s not a novel question if you are already excited about a coming event before it occurs. For example, we might be looking forward to Christmas but Christmas hasn’t arrived yet. We have all this anticipation and expectation of all the fun activities that are commonly associated with Christmas, so we’re enjoying the psychological experience of anticipation of the impending Christmas events. The biology changes as a result of this anticipatory psychological state and we call this “bio-translation.” The biology follows along, so we create beneficial biological in anticipation.
What we discovered with laughter is that when we looked at individuals who use humor repetitively, much like a person who exercises on a regular basis, the brain and the body become conditioned in a beneficial direction. What we saw with the subjects who do use laughter on a regular basis, was that as they anticipate a coming laughter experience, their psychology and their biology change in a direction that is beneficial immunologically. That’s what we call a “positive anticipatory response.” And that really shouldn’t be really surprising. The opposite is also true: if you or I were going to the dentist for a root canal, we might experience a negative anticipation: our heart rate increases, our blood pressure increases and we start sweating. With laughter, the body experiences a positive anticipation experience.
SC: On one hand, you are speaking about a state of mind; the acute psychological reaction before going to the dentist, for example. But you have also referred to our body’s ability to build a kind of laughter-conditioned body much like an aerobic trained body. The more conditioned a person is aerobically, the more the body is acclimated for aerobic activity. You imply that the same goes for mirthful laughter, happy laughter. That the more the body is conditioned to have the physiological experience of laughter, the easier it is for the body to have the chemical benefits. It’s a physiological condition that is developed much like an aerobic condition.
LB: That’s correct. Let me use the example of moderate exercise and conditioning: when you exercise on a regular basis you are conditioning your heart and your blood vessels. We call that cardio-vascular conditioning. Let me assure you that it is not just the body or the heart or the blood vessels that are being conditioned with the repetition of moderate exercise, it is also the brain that is conditioned through the regular release of specific hormones. In aerobic conditioning then, the brain is getting used to this repetition and we call that “classical conditioning.” With laughter the same benefits are present and appear to be very similar to the classical conditioning of moderate exercise.
SC: Much scientific evidence exists showing that the brain is malleable to change and that this neuroplasticity is not only a condition of young children but of anyone of any age. Can someone who has led a rather unhappy life actually change their neurological conditioning with regular mirthful or happy laughter?
LB: Great question, great question, I love it. One of the things that we’ve discovered about the brain and the mind, the hardware and software, if you will, is that, yes, there appears to be much more plasticity to the brain then ever realized before, meaning that the brain is very malleable. We can change it, we can condition it, and we can improve it with the repetition, for example, of moderate exercise. Even if totally unconditioned, the more repetitions of moderate exercise, the more benefits of “wellness” provided to the body, the brain and the mind—- (a sense of well-being). So there is some reality here.
What I’m suggesting is that the parallels appear to be very true with the repetitive behavior of humor and the associated mirthful laughter: the biology, the psychology, and the bio-translation appear to parallel that of moderate exercise.
Now, there is also the concept of perception. When we perceive either a happy or a sad event, our psychology and biology respond accordingly. The reality is that we as human beings hang on to perceptions created from stressful events: the stress is not necessarily the event itself, but the perception. We as human beings hold on to perceptions that something negative is going to happen to us and we anticipate the negative as happening to us even though the event has not even occurred. We develop a negative psycho-physiological response.
When we perceive either a happy or a sad event, our psychology and biology respond accordingly. The reality is that we as human beings hang on to perceptions created from stressful events: the stress is not necessarily the event itself, but the perception.
SC: So what your research shows is that not only by intentionally pursuing laughter, by intentionally pursuing mirthful or happy states of perceptions, we override the tendencies towards negative perception and as a result, release the body from chemical adrenalin and cortisol dominate states into healthier immunological, endorphin supporting states. This is something that we are not only neurologically capable of doing for ourselves, but when we exercise this “neurological capacity”, our neurology changes, our biochemistry changes towards a healthier/wellness state. So when we intentionally pursue laughter, happiness, and joy the body actually does exactly what you set out to discover research-wise: “A merry heart does good like a medicine”.
LB: That’s absolutely correct. Happiness isn’t something that just falls on you. You have to pursue it. Again, if we use the example of wanting to be physically fit you wouldn’t just sit there; you have to volitionally do something. The same is true with the use of humor or laughter: its volitional use is helpful in producing the right chemistry for health, for lowering the detrimental stress hormones and increasing the neuropeptides such as endorphin. It’s a volitional act of getting off the merry-goround of the stresses of life.
SC: So, when we pursue the act of laughing, the act of joy, we not only redirect neurological firings producing a healthy neurological chemistry, but doesn’t that healthy chemical state in our body also help direct our gene expression to produce a higher quality of protein that then supports the building of healthy tissue through our body?
LB: Yes, and this is more than just theoretical. It’s a reality; a component of bio-translation, and the psycho-biology, psycho-physiology, psychoneuroimmunology is elicited when we just laugh for laughter’s sake. Neurologically, it’s triggered because we have done it repetitiously before and are getting the benefit because of that conditioned repetition, much like a neurological classical Pavlovian conditioning phenomena. When we experience mirthful laughter repetitiously, in an area in the limbic system called the nucleus accumbens, we produce a chemical called dopamine. We know this because of research done at Stanford University with fMRI scans show that the nucleus accumbens is very neurologically active during laughter.
This is significant because the nucleus accumbens is the reward/pleasure center. It’s the same center that lights up when we have an orgasmic response. Now we understand that this center responds to both moderate exercise as well as laughter. What an opportunity relative to possible therapeutic application.
However, we also see changes take place in the immune system. For example, our research has shown that changes occur at the cellular level of the immune system proteins called cytokines and these chemical changes occur relative to changing levels of the hormones cortisol, growth hormone and adrenalin. This doesn’t just take place in the blood stream but at the gene expression level, meaning that the gene switching must take place for these hormones to change. This is measured in the changes of substances called messenger RNA (mRNA). So literally when we see chemical changes in the blood stream, something had to change at the gene expression level.
Our research has shown that changes occur at the cellular level of the immune system proteins called cytokines and these chemical changes occur relative to changing levels of the hormones cortisol, growth hormone and adrenalin. This doesn’t just take place in the blood stream but at the gene expression level.
SC: And, again, this is all relative to perception…
LB: Yes. If I perceive an experience as stressful, my body will produce certain types of stress hormone chemicals. But, if I am laughing, my body will not create these stress hormones and we can measure those changes in the blood stream.
SC: And the more experiments you conduct, the greater the understanding. During your early mirthful laughter research, you measured hormone levels in the blood immediately before your experiments. Now that there is a greater understanding of blood chemistry changes simply by anticipation, research protocols have changed also.
LB: Yes, early in our research, we did not yet appreciate and understand what we were observing with our findings. It wasn’t until we had the data in front of us with more studies conducted with larger numbers of subjects that we began to understand. When I say large, large in the sense that the number of subjects wasn’t large……because it’s very difficult to do these complex “type” of studies with a large numbers of subjects at one time.
SC: And these types of blood based research experiments are very expensive, too. And the controls are challenging because we’re talking about dynamic human beings.
LB: Yes, it can sometimes be a little like attempting to control for the universe. One of the ways we grew in understanding the science and the experimentation is that we were puzzled by a couple of things. For instance, once we had a research subject for an experiment but we didn’t understand why his cortisol level was absolutely flipped in comparison to all the other subjects. As a consequence, we thought we had done something wrong. What we discovered later was the obvious: that hormones in the body have a diurnal pattern every 24-hour period. We hadn’t tuned into this until the subject told us that he worked at night and slept in the day time. So what we were observing was a circadian rhythm flip; he didn’t fit the pattern of the release or the reduction of cortical chemistry in comparison with the other subjects.
SC: The early research was set up to take a snap shot in time but the immunological system doesn’t behave in a way that can be understood in a single snapshot. Now your research is conducted over time.
LB: Absolutely correct. It was much later before we stumbled across the whole construct of anticipation, and once we did, further research always controlled for anticipation and expectation concerns.
You know, it is interesting that in the English language the words expectation and anticipation are synonyms for the word “hope” and that this research may, indeed, find that the biochemical conditions of laughter could be directly related to defining the construct that there is biology to hope.
The biochemical conditions of laughter could be directly related to defining the construct that there is biology to hope.
Our research has come full circle from the gentleman named Norman Cousins who originally funded our research. Having healed himself of several crippling diseases with laugher, he went on to write a book called Headfirst: The Biology of Hope, and I think he was right on target.