Between the ages of 3 and 5, I thought Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” was the funniest song in the world. Or so my mom tells me.
I’d beg her to play the scratchy 45 rpm single over and over again on our family’s monolithic console stereo, and turn it up loud while I smiled and spun in circles on our wall-to-wall blue shag carpet. There I was, a whirling dervish in pajamas, faithfully bellowing the song’s call and response lyrics in my best preschool Peter Noone-ish cockney accent. And, along with my mom, laughing my butt off — something we continue to do at the memory.
It always feels good to lose ourselves in uncontrollable fits of giggles. To have our bodies overcome by laughter’s instantaneous injection of warmth, comfort and exhaustion. The saying “Laughter is the best medicine” may be one of humankind’s most overused cliches, but researchers believe a good dose of guffaws really is healthy.
Laughter is a physiological response to humor that is distinctly human. It’s also a surprisingly complex response, using brain skills similar to that of problem solving. It’s a near total-body experience involving the contraction of 15 facial muscles, stimulation of the upper lip’s main lifting muscle, a partial closing of the larynx affecting air intake, and (sometimes) fits of crying. Not to mention flushed faces, various hand and leg gestures, and vocalized sounds ranging from barely audible snickers to neighborhood-rattling roars.
It also has some history.
Laughter supposedly sprang from the earliest days of human existence as a shared gesture of relief marking the passing danger. A few thousand years of evolution later, many researchers believe laughter’s main purpose is to create and strengthen human bonds. It is also an indicator of our comfort with others. In fact, laughter’s so-called “contagious” nature is believed rooted in an age-old human fear of exclusion from a group.
Gelotology, the study of the physiology of laughter, concentrates on the still foggy relationship between laughter and the brain. Researchers in this relatively new field of study have learned that laughter (as a brain function) is different from other emotional responses. For example, while most emotional responses (crying, for instance) are functions of the brain’s frontal lobe region, laughter appears to be produced by electrical waves traveling on circuits that run through our entire brain. Interconnected structures in the highly developed limbic system — the part of the brain controlling essential human behaviors, like self-preservation and finding food — also contribute to producing laughter. And that may mean something to us health-wise.
While doctors have long recognized laughter as an illness and stress reliever, some now believe it can also help balance the human immune system. Laughter appears to reduce levels of immunity-suppressing stress hormones, decrease artery-obstructing blood platelets, and lower blood pressure. Research also indicates that laughing increases the body’s count of natural tumor- and virus-destroying killer cells, T-cells (immune response helpers), B-cells (creators of disease-crushing antibodies) and Gamma-interferon (a disease-fighting protein).
The exhaustion you feel after particularly long fits of laughter results from the aerobic workout on your diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles. Researchers estimate that 100 fits of laughter is equal to 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike.
Of course, laughter isn’t always the perfect tonic for your health. Laughing hard after abdominal surgery can tear out stitches. And unless you’re some kind of masochist, you should always avoid even a giggle after suffering a broken rib.
In search of an explanation for my gut-busting, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” childhood laughing fits, I found that humans process potentially humorous information very quickly (within four-tenths of a second), and then decide individually (based on age, mood, mental state, personality or intelligence) whether it’s funny or not. For some reason, I just thought that a song about the merry English widow next door and her eighth husband named Henry was darn funny. Come to think of it, I still do.
Published: Island Scene Online, December 13, 2000