Chemical mismodulation and other questions about laughter

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Laughter and humor are in the news a lot these days because they are being proven to be therapeutic allies, however, humor and laughter are not always helpful. Yes, there are benefits to be derived from the psychological, social, and physiological effects associated with laughter and humor. Yet, as too many people are painfully aware, being the butt of a joke or part of a group that’s made fun of can leave lasting emotional scars. Laughter and humor they are not always signs of health; they may be signs of something disordered or pathological. What makes the difference?
Some humor and some laughter is hurtful (toxic). According to  the therapeutic principles, methods, and code of ethics of World Laughter Tour, Inc. (WLT) , anyone engaged in capitalizing on the therapeutic potential of laughter and humor –lay person or professional–  will certainly be less than effective, and is cautioned against doing harm if they fail to distinguish between helpful, hurtful, and pathological laughter, and make the appropriate interventions.
For example, ridicule, zingers and put-downs, are joking that makes fun of or takes unfair advantage of other people’s weaknesses, disabilities, or differences. WLT categorizes these as hurtful, harmful, or toxic; to be avoided. The same is true of sneering, jeering, and sinister, or sarcastic laughter. Some mental and physical maladies have laughter as presenting characteristics; they are signs of an illness (pathology). None of this is promoted or permitted in the context of WLT therapeutic laughter programs.

True-Mirthful Laughter
I first came across this very useful term in the writings of William Fry, Jr., MD. The distinction he was aware of more than thirty years ago is now finding favor among contemporary theorists of laughter and humor. Some go so far as to conjecture that the physical act of laughter in the absence of the emotional state of mirth, i.e., faked or forced or chemically induced laughter, will not have the same associated positive physiology; will not have the same benefits.Hurely, et al, offer another useful concept in this regard, “…the chemical mismodulation of normal neural responses.” (Inside Jokes,(MIT2011) p.128)

According to Wikipedia, in the mid-19th century, positive smiling, something akin to true-mirthful laughter, was first identified by French physician Guillaume Duchenne, while conducting research on the physiology of facial expressions, identified two distinct types of smiles. A Duchenne smile involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes). A non-Duchenne smile involves only the zygomatic major muscle. “Research with adults initially indicated that joy was indexed by generic smiling, any smiling involving the raising of the lip corners by the zygomatic major…. More recent research suggests that smiling in which the muscle around the eye contracts, raising the cheeks high (Duchenne smiling), is uniquely associated with positive emotion.

“Duchenne laughter” is the name given to stimulus-driven, emotionally valenced; spontaneous. In some research, Duchenne laughter was found to involve orbicularis oculi muscle action, related to self-reports of reduced anger and increased enjoyment, the dissociation of distress, better social relations, and positive responses from strangers, whereas non-Duchenne laughter did not.

In contrast, non-Duchenne laughter is self-generated, emotionless; forced; false; manipulative, e.g., always laughing at the boss’s jokes.
Characteristics of true mirthful laughter
1. It sounds warm and inviting. You want to join in even when you don’t know what was funny originally.
2. There is almost always something in the objective reality which can be observed as the laughter stimulus (or it can be feasibly explained).
3. The laughter erupts spontaneously and is often followed by a [comment about] sense of relief or release, “Thanks! I needed that.”
4. The laughter is not forced or faked in any way.
5. The laughter is not chemically induced.
6. The laughter is at no one’s expense.

Examples of laughter associated with pathology

A. Neurological conditions:
  • Pseudo-bulbar palsy
  • Gelastic epilepsy
  • Various brain-damage disorders
B. Psychiatric conditions:
  • Hebephrenic schizophrenia
  • Psychotic hallucinations (auditory & visual)
C. Intoxications:
  • The “happy” drunk
  • Nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
  • Cannabis- (marijuana) induced giggles
  • Manganese poisoning
D. The humor itself is toxic (from Joel Goodman):
  1. It fails the “A.T. & T.” test (is not Appropriate, Timely & Tasteful).
  2. Uses ridicule, sarcasm, or taboo language.
  3. Makes unwanted jokes about serious subjects.
  4. Hostile teasing hides behind “just joking” excuse.
At the present state of our understanding, awaiting further evidence that proves otherwise, WLT has taken the position that it is best to think of “true mirthful laughter” as the positive, helpful, or beneficial laughter, and “toxic laughter” is that which is associated with some pathology or other negative state.
In The Gelopedia, Therapeutic is defined as: Originally, or traditionally, the exclusive domain of medicine. Adopted and expanded in modern times, e.g., from a field called Positive Psychology, therapeutic goes beyond finding cures and ‘fixing what’s broken’ to include strengthening what is working well, improving/maintaining quality of life, building self-confidence and self-esteem, enhancing social skills, teaching coping strategies, blocking fear/panic/anger/depression, uplifting perspective, and reinforcing hope.
Go for the good
Beware of toxic humor and laughter for the damage it can do and the pathology it might portend. For its therapeutic benefits, the laughter you’re after should be the true-mirthful kind.
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About the Author

Steve Wilson

Award-winning psychologist, Steve Wilson, also known as The Joyologist and The Cheerman of the Bored, has spent 30 years specializing in applied and therapeutic humor with a humanitarian mission. As Director of National Humor Month, he intertwines science and ancient wisdom with substance and humor to create practical methods to lead the world to health, happiness and peace through laughter. More than six thousand people have completed his unique training in how to create therapeutic laughter, and tens of thousands more around the world have been uplifted by his talks, classes, books, and articles. He established the World Laughter Tour, Inc., in 1998, to be a rich resource and inspiration for improving productivity, health, and well being in business, healthcare and education. For more information and