Laughter As the number of proven medicinal benefits of cannabis continues to increase, we investigate one that is often overlooked: getting the giggles. Cannabis seems to encourage laughter, to the extent that this has become a cliché. Laughter is said to improve health. So what’s the science behind the connections?
“Its role in intimate relationships is vastly underestimated and it really is the glue of good marriages. It synchronizes the brains of speaker and listener so that they are emotionally attuned.”
So says Psychology Today, but this quote isn’t – as you would be totally forgiven for assuming! – describing cannabis. It is actually referencing something that is closely linked to cannabis use: laughter.
Interestingly, there is still quite a lot that is still not fully understood about the actions of laughter on the brain and body. There is more that is known about the effects of cannabis on our physiology, partly because research into it was funded by people trying to keep cannabis illegal, which thankfully is not the case with laughter. As far as this author has been able to ascertain, there are no studies that specifically link laughter and cannabis together.
Cannabis and laughter involve the same parts of the brain
However, as we shall see, there is research into both topics that show the same parts of the brain are affected by cannabis and associated with laughter. For cannabis specifically, these are the cerebellum, the right frontal lobe, and the left temporal lobe. Cannabis increases blood flow to these areas. This could well be caused by THC in particular – remember that the brain has a huge concentration of CB1 receptors, more than any other type of neuron, and these are activated by THC.
This activation in turn triggers increased production of dopamine and seratonin, both ‘happy’ neurotransmitters that elevate mood. Simply put, consuming cannabis makes you more likely to laugh.
When it comes to which types of cannabis are more likely to make you laugh, subjective experience is currently all we have to go on. Some people reason that indica strains, known for their relaxing properties, are more laughter-inducing because you need to feel relaxed and comfortable to appreciate humour. Others are on the side of sativas, thanks to the cerebral stimulation and sense of wonder they impart; comedy is a form of creativity, after all. And yet others swear by hybrids, for the best of both worlds.
What type of cannabis will make you laugh?
However, recent research on the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of different cannabis varieties mean we need to reassess what we thought we know about indicas and sativas being defined by their THC:CBD ratio. So in terms of ‘what cannabis type should I grow for making me and my friends laugh?’, the answer is really ‘whatever works for you’; the effect of laughter probably has as much to do with set and setting as it does with a particular cannabinoid fingerprint (and we may eventually discover it’s all down to terpenes anyway).
Laughter has no particular ‘centre’ in the brain, but begins with an electrical wave passing through cerebral cortex. The left side analyses the words and structure of the situation, while the right side performs the “intellectual analysis” required for the situation to be found funny. The frontal lobe of the brain, associated with emotional and social responses, shows increased activity as the wave passes.
The benign violation theory of humour
Dr. Peter McGraw, a behavioural scientist, associate professor of marketing and psychology, and co-author of the book ‘The Humor Code’, posits that three conditions must be met for humour to occur.
Firstly, our brains must process a situation as a violation – anything that disrupts our idea of how the world ought to be, the message that “something seems wrong”. Secondly, the violation must be perceived to be benign. This can be because it happened a long time ago; or it happened to someone else; or (and most relevant for the investigation of cannabis and laughter) “it just doesn’t seem real”. Finally, and crucially, both of these appraisals must happen simultaneously. This is the benign violation theory.
The importance of one’s own perception here also explains why some people have a cruel sense of humour, and will laugh at racism, sexism, mocking disability, and so on. The fact that a violation does not hurt them personally is enough for them to perceive it as benign, even though it is genuinely hurtful to the target. Such people are fond of accusing others of having “no sense of humour”, when in fact it is they who have no sense of empathy.
Does cannabis encourage a gentler, sillier type of humour?
In this context it is interesting to reflect upon the tendency of cannabis to increase empathy for others, and to enhance pattern recognition. Perhaps it is this combination which leads to a gentler, sillier type of humour, where perceived violations of the natural order are benign because they are too ridiculous to happen. One of the most reported subjective experiences of cannabis use is that it helps the user to see the absurdity of everyday life, and this is enough to reduce them to helpless giggles.
This is by no means a recent discovery. By 79 CE, Pliny the Elder had written of cannabis “If this be taken in myrrh and wine all kinds of phantoms beset the mind, causing laughter which persists until the kernels of pine-nuts are taken with pepper and honey in palm wine”. He referred to cannabis as “gelotophyllis”, which literally translates from Latin as “leaves of laughter”. The study of laughter is known as gelotology.
Laughter is also contagious. We are thirty times more likely to laugh in company than alone. This has been proven by various studies, and is the reason that laugh tracks are used in television comedy; even if you are watching alone, there is additional stimulus to laugh. The act of laughing with people creates social bonding and group empathy, another thing it has in common with social cannabis use.
The supportive power of laughter in groups
Laughter in groups can transform a potentially painful, embarrassing situation into a funny and supportive one. Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist and stand-up comedian, describes this as “we’re not just emitting [laughter] to show each other that we like each other, we’re making ourselves feel better together”.
Being able to see the humour of your own actions, and then laugh at yourself, is a great strength. Cannabis is absolutely ideal for this. In a society that places such value on possessions and perfection, and seemingly effortless perfection at that, it’s good to have a tool to help us laugh at our failed attempts and recognise the absurdity of striving for an unattainable and manufactured goal.
What physiological effect does laughter have?
So what is laughter physically doing to our bodies? Only good things. Respiration increases, raising the amount of oxygen in the blood. During laughter, heart rate and blood pressure increase (as during exercise) but after the physicality of laughing, which involves between thirty and forty muscles, blood pressure drops and a feeling of relaxation begins that can last for up to forty minutes.
Some studies have shown that laughing reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which is part of the ‘fight or flight’ response. This study states that, although there is still a lack of clinical trials on the therapeutic value of laughter, there are plenty of reported benefits “in geriatrics, oncology, critical care, psychiatry, rehabilitation, rheumatology, home care, palliative care, hospice care, terminal care, and general patient care”.
When we add the medicinal effects of cannabis to this impressive list, it’s clear that laughter and cannabis complement each other. We might not know exactly why cannabis makes us more prone to laugh, but we can certainly reap the benefits of this effect!