Gelotology comes from the Greek word gelos and is the physiological study of laughter. One of the first people to study laughter was Robert Provine. During his experiments he documented how laughter is caused.

1. The left side of the cortex analyzes the joke
2. The brain frontal lobe becomes active
3. The right hemisphere of the cortex finishes the analysis of the joke
4. It then spreads to become processed by the senses
5. Lastly the motor section of the brain gets stimulated to evoke laughter

Other emotions are said to mainly stay in one section of the brain.

He also documented the three basic reasons why we laugh.
1. Incongruity theory - when logic and familiarity don't go to together. We laugh when we expect one thing and see or hear another.
2. Superiority theory - this is when we laugh at someone else's misfortune, mistake or stupidity. Like laughing at your friend falling down the stairs.
3. Relief Theory - when something is high in tension and then the tension ends. Sort of like comic relief.

Robert Provine also proved that laughter really is the best medicine. It brings people together and helps to relive stress and illness. Laughter actually helps us physiologically. For instance it increases blood platelets and increase the amount of oxygen to the body. Comedians and clowns are even now brought into hospitals to help the patients, sort of like Patch Adams. The American Cancer Society even sponsors laugh rooms in hospitals. It's not a bad workout either. Laughing almost 100 times is equivalent to 10 minutes of using a rowing machine. So with that all said get out there and tell a joke.

The most wasted day of all is that on which we have not laughed.
     --Sebastien Roch Nicholas Chamfort (Maxims and Thoughts)

Laugher, the Best Medicine

While often this tagline, made infamous by Reader's Digest, is simply untrue, there are amazing discoveries about instances where there is considerable evidence for the wholesome effect of laughter. Medical research into this effect has become a little field of study all of its own, known as Gelotology. More than two hundred scientists worldwide, including biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists and behavioral scientists are involved with laughter research today.


A US science journalist named Norman Cousins is said to be one of the founders of this research. About fourty years ago, he suffered from a painful arthritic inflammation of his spine and joints. Hopes of recovery were slim. Clutching at straws, he developed a therapy of laughter with which he was able to master the pain. In the meantime, Cousins has recovered completely.


Some explanations for this phenomenon have been forthcoming since the middle of the nineties. Neuroimmunologist Lee Berk proved that laughing led to a marked decrease in the seral concentration of stress hormone cortisol, growth hormone and adrenalin. This in turn leads to an increase in the counts and activity of a number of cells involved in the immune response. This includes B and T lymphocites which combat bacterial and viral infections as well as the natural "killer" cells involved in recognizing and eliminating tumor cells. Berk says it's amazing that something simple like cheerful laughter can influence important immune mechanisms.

This could explain why people with a positive attitude don't get sick as often, says Petra Klapps, who leads the Kolibri Institute in Cologne. Among other things, this facility offers therapeutic clowning for adults in clinics, old age homes and rehab centres. She claims the pain-killing effect of laughter results from the release of endorphins. These chemical messengers, known as "happiness hormones", cause the mood of a laughing person to further improve. They are also partly responsible for a reduction of stress hormones in the blood and strengthening of the immune system.

Endorphins also cause the feeling of happiness experienced by athletes after activity. Sports and laughter are related: hearty laughter stimulates almost all muscles, the pulse rate climbs to 120 bpm and breathing quickens. This tension, which lasts for an average of six seconds, is followed by a relaxation of equal intensity. The heartbeat slows, blood pressure falls and the skeletal muscles relax. This can lead to a long-term reduction of hypertension.

US studies show that, by improving circulation, laughter also strengthens bones, sinews and ligaments. Also, the inner walls of blood vessels are protected, which helps prevent cardiac arrests.

Laughter in Practice

"Clinic Clowns" are busy in many medical facilities in the US and Europe to brighten the daily lives of patients. One of the pioneers of this movement was the US Doctor Patch Adams, whose story was told in 1999 in the movie by the same name starring Robin Williams in the lead role. He was convinced that fun spreads a wholesome energy in the sickroom.

Illnesses, it is now felt, are rarely "just" due to organic causes; more often than not, there is a whole history of problems. Clowns build a colorful bridge between medical treatment and the patient's self-healing potential. Humor in the hospital helps patients to take a positive view of life and thus supplements the spectrum of medical treatment.

In some European countries, medicare sometimes pays for laughter therapy. Humor finds use not just in medicine but also as a complement to psychotherapy. Patients are shown how to tackle life from a different, more cheerful perspective. Humor helps overcome inhibitions, activates creative abilities and allows for recognizing new connections. This is why some companies send their staff on humor workshops. Humor and laughter are found to improve professional motivation.

A special kind of laughter has been spreading around the world: Indian Doctor Manda Kataria has developed a form of Yoga, Hasya Yoga, which combines elements of Yoga and laughter therapy. In the mid-90s, he started to gather people in a park in Bombay for 20 minute group laughter sessions every morning. He founded the first "laughter club" in 1995. Since then, laughter clubs are gaining more and more members.

From an article in Die Welt,
April 13, 2002.

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