Laughter on the brain

11 January 2013 at 14:08

We have always been fascinated with the brain. A totally amazing reticulated mush weighing about 1.4 kgs that sits in our cranium and consists of approximately a 100 trillion cells it is the basis of who we are and how we function within ourselves, our families and our society.  Just one gram of brain tissue can contain 400 billion synapses!  These numbers are boggling, the chemistry is staggering. The subtle (and at times not so subtle) interplay between our behaviours and the release of neurotransmitters and the release of neurotransmitters and our behaviour is complex and in the main, beyond my understanding; particularly when I start to think about our thoughts being series of chemical and electrical reactions/interactions creating memories and feelings and that’s before we even start to think about original thought!

We deliver a wide range of training based on our professional backgrounds and experience not only through our other businesses SNR Consultancy and Training and Elaine Saint Partnerships (we’re starting to bring everything together under one banner – Golden Tree Wellbeing. In the meantime please check out our other website we don’t just do Laughter Yoga, as much as we’d like to!). Recently we delivered some work around the effects and risks of drugs; both legal and illegal. The session went beyond the basics of ‘this is what drugs look like’ and their basic generic effects. It explored how different drugs cause different neurotransmitters to be released or inhibited across the billions and billions of synapses across our brains and how this complexity is further added to by our individual physiological and psychological vulnerabilities and the setting in which the drug taking behaviour takes place.

The training was a great success but what you may be asking does that have to do with Laughter Yoga?  

Well, it’s not just drugs that affect the release of these neurotransmitters; it’s everything we do. The food that we eat; the places we visit; the things that we see; who and how we interact with everything - including laughing.  The ‘pleasure centre’ or ‘reward pathway’ within the brain centres around a cluster of neurons at the very centre of the brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). The VTA receives signals from various parts or regions of the brain and monitors how well our various fundamental needs are being satisfied. This information then gets sent forward to another cluster of neurons, the nucleus accumbens through the use of a particular neurotransmitter, Dopamine. This increase in levels of Dopamine in the nucleus accumbens reinforces the behaviours that satisfy our basic fundamental needs. One of many neurotransmitters, Dopamine is associated with a number of different processes within us including mood, reward, reinforcement and attention it would seem that dopamine, the VTA and nucleus accumbens is also activated when we view humourous things. In turn we would posit that engaging in Laughter Yoga therefore will also activate these areas of brain and trigger this release of dopamine (and quite possibly, although it hasn’t been demonstrated, other neurotransmitters). These processes are linked to the idea of hedonistic or pleasure seeking behaviours but they are also linked to mood in general. Therefore, when we laugh we release dopamine and that, along with other chemicals makes us feel happy and improves our mood. This release of dopamine also reinforces a reward pathway so that laughing is connected with happiness and a positive mood. The more we laugh then perhaps the stronger the reward pathway becomes. The contention with Laughter Yoga that through the simulation of laughter it can and does become real and genuine, particularly if it is undertaken as a group activity, it would therefore follow that dopamine, along with other neurotransmitters such as Serotonin, GABA, Noradrenalin and Endorphins are released and hence mood is improved and the behaviour reinforced. Perhaps this is a reason why those that engage in Laughter Yoga on a regular basis are able to access their ability to laugh more readily and generally have a very positive mood and approach to life. They also have a greater ability to meet life’s travails with equanimity?

We believe that trying to understand the science behind laughter is very important.  Laughter Yoga, it is said, is laughing for no reason; however there is a reason by behind laughing; a purpose behind the action – we change our brain chemistry. But unlike the changes that take place through the artificial action of drugs (both illicit and legal) we can use a natural, simple and harmless process; laughter. The only caveat here would be that it may be the laughter required is genuine mirthful laughter rather than the simulated laughter. Norman Cousins in his book ‘Anatomy of an Illness’ (discussed in previous blogs) highlighted the analgesic effects of laughter following watching comedy films; this would suggest that the body’s own pain killers, endorphins, are being released. It would also follow that other neurotransmitters are either released or inhibited to a greater or lesser degree in the process of laughter. We’re not fooling our brains and minds; rather we are training them, supporting neural plasticity, building and then reinforcing pathways through the positive and life enhancing aspects of our neurochemistry using a natural and accessible activity. So keep laughing, keep releasing that dopamine and keep reinforcing that positive reward pathway.

Simon and Sandra

Author: Simon and Sandra on 11 January 2013 at 14:08  

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