The mechanisms behind laughter are still mostly a mystery to scientists and doctors. But we know from experience and a long history of cannabis users that one of the best and fastest ways to induce laughter is by using cannabis! Could this funny “side-effect” of cannabis be one of its best therapeutic properties?
Cannabis is famed for causing uncontrollable laughter or “fits of the giggles” in users. In fact, even the notorious 1936 film Reefer Madness stated that the first sign of cannabis intoxication was “sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter”. Dozens of research papers have noted this effect, but the reasons for it remain unclear.
As a whole, the study of laughter has been left to psychologists rather than biologists. The physiology of laughter is more or less a mystery, and it is most often explained in psychological terms. While doctors and scientist observe a positive physiological response to laughter (such as physical healing), the actual biological or neurological mechanisms behind laughter itself are pretty much unknown.
In any case, laughter is often seen as a “side-effect” of cannabis, albeit an enjoyable one. It’s often overlooked as a therapeutic quality, although we all agree that “laughter is the best medicine”, right? Why shouldn’t the medical world of cannabis embrace this “side-effect” as a therapeutic quality, one that is just as vital to healing as any other biomedical process?
Why the study of laughter is important
Many intoxicating substances can elicit mood changes in users, such as alcohol, various hallucinogens and opiates. The “positive” changes in mood often include feelings of profound joy, pleasure and exhilaration—and an increased propensity for laughter. Historically, many of the dozens of papers that note the phenomenon have simply mentioned its existence without exploring the mechanisms at work too closely.
However, now that our approach to understanding psychological processes has matured somewhat, researchers are beginning to pay closer attention to the processes at work when humans use psychoactive drugs. A matter of particular interest is in the potential for psychoactive drugs to improve mood, and this is especially pertinent in the study and treatment of depression and other psychological or emotional disturbances.
A more complete understanding of how human consciousness works will ultimately allow us to treat mood disorders at the source. This is in comparison to the current biomedical paradigm, which makeshifts treatments for signs and symptoms but doesn’t address the underlying cause.
One example of this new approach is the recent publicity surrounding depression and its possible basis in immune system inflammation. Initial studies are finding that treating the underlying cause—the inflammation—causes the symptoms of depression to reduce or even disappear. Laughter may also be useful in treating individuals with physical illness or injury, as is has been shown to reduce subjective feelings of stress and pain.
Laughter is an evolutionary component of human beings. It is so fundamental to human expression that people do it completely unconsciously (not on purpose). It is spontaneous like breathing, thinking or going to the toilet. It’s safe to say that studying human laughter can shed light on all kinds of neurological and psychological processes, and this lends itself to medicine in the way of understanding emotional ailments like depression or anxiety.
How does laughter naturally occur in humans?
The study of laughter in humans is known as gelotology, from the Greek word gelos, meaning laughter. It is widely understood that laughter occurs in response to internal or external stimuli, such as tickling, jokes, or humorous thoughts.
Laughter is a fundamental aspect of human social interaction (as well as that of our closer primate cousins), and can act as positive or negative feedback in social situations. For example, a group of people laughing at a joke made by one of its members acts as positive feedback, while laughing in ridicule at a social error made by a group member acts as negative feedback.
The area of the brain that controls the laughter response in humans is believed to be the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which lies at the base of the prefrontal cortex and is known for producing endorphins. Endorphins are endogenous morphine-like substances produced by the brain. These chemicals evoke feelings of euphoria and inhibit pain. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is part of the “limbic brain”, which is considered to be at the core of all human emotional response. It has been demonstrated that laughter triggers endorphin release, which in turn increases subjective well-being as well as resistance to pain.
Other parts of the limbic system, namely the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus and hippocampus, are also believed to be involved in the laughter response. The parts of the limbic system (also known as the reptilian brain) that are involved with laughter are believed to control the raw emotional response to a humorous stimulus.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex mediates the higher-consciousness aspects of the laughter response, such as suppression of laughter if the social setting is inappropriate. The hypothalamus particularly is implicated in the expression of loud, uncontrollable laughter, such as that often seen in cannabis users.
How does cannabis affect this natural process?
Cannabis has been observed to increase expression of laughter and feelings of elation, euphoria and well-being. Conversely, expressions of anger and hostility are reduced. The possible exception of this is sarcasm, which has been found to increase after cannabis use.
The mechanism via which cannabis induces laughter in the user is not yet fully understood. Cannabinoid receptors are found in high densities in the prefrontal cortex, and are also present (though in varying densities) throughout the limbic system.
Interestingly, a 1993 study into gelastic epilepsy (a type characterised by uncontrolled laughter) investigated two individuals suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. When they were subjected to electrical stimulation, they experienced complex partial seizures characterised by laughter and a feeling of mirth.
The particular parts of the brain stimulated were the fusiform gyrus (part of the basal temporal lobe) and the parahippocampal gyrus (the region of the limbic system that surrounds the hippocampus and also part of the temporal lobe). The temporal lobe is also known to provide input to the ventromedial cortex and hypothalamus, and its basal region also contains the hippocampus and amygdala.
Due to the similarity of expression of laughter in these individuals and in cannabis users, the authors of a 1996 review of cannabis and its effect on mood and laughter concluded that a similar mechanism must be at work. They hypothesized that effusive laughter in cannabis users was likely due to stimulation of the basal temporal lobe.
The temporal lobe, epilepsy and cannabis
It seems that the link between cannabis use and temporal lobe epilepsy runs deep.
Individuals suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy often report feeling a sensation of “dreamy languor, during which ego boundaries becomes dissolved, to be replaced by a feeling of cosmic belonging” (see above link). This is remarkably similar to a mind-state commonly reported by cannabis users. Despite the fact that cannabis can apparently create a mind-state very similar to that experienced by temporal lobe epileptics, there is strong evidence that use of cannabinoids can help to manage the severity and frequency of seizures they experience.
The benign violation theory of humour and laughter
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 events 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 violation can be perceived as benign because the person does not identify with it (they aren’t disabled, for example). The benign violation theory in part explains how different senses of humour can arise in different people.
One common reported subjective experience of cannabis use is that it helps the user to see the absurdity of everyday life. This is also in line with benign violation theory, as something that affects basically everybody is in a way, benign. And, often enough, the observation of such absurdity is enough to reduce a person to giggles.
The awakening to absurdity isn’t a new idea by any means. 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”.
Laughter, humans, and togetherness
By and large, humans are social creatures, and most human behaviours arise out of a social context, setting or upbringing. Laughter is no different. 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”.
Laughter is also contagious. We are 30 times more likely to laugh in company than alone. This social phenomenon has been proven by various studies, and is the reason that laugh tracks are used in television comedy. Even if you are watching alone, the sound of others laughing is more likely to elicit laughter in you, the viewer.
Laughing, much like sharing a meal, is an experience that humans are more likely to share than to experience alone. This also explains why cannabis users are likely to use cannabis together in a social context or in a circle.
Clearly, the complex set of relationships between the various relevant areas of the brain involved in laughter response require further investigation, as our understanding of the processes at work is currently in its infancy. However, as investigation into the properties of cannabinoids and related substances advances, we are rapidly gaining deeper insight into the complexities of human brain function. In time, this will enable the implementation of new, improved cannabis therapies for the treatment of mood disorders.
Top 5 strains for a giggle fit
Laughter joins the long list of human social phenomena that science can’t put its finger on. For many cannabis users, the “why” isn’t nearly as important as the “how”. For all intents and purposes, cannabis users know exactly how. Just eat a cannabis brownie — or smoke a joint of one of these best giggly strains.
1. Laughing Buddha
This strain is called the Laughing Buddha for a reason. It was a Cannabis Cup champion in 2003. It has an average THC content of 20%, and gives the energetic, uplifting and happy effects that are characteristic of sativa strains.
2. Purple Monkey Balls
If the name of this strain doesn’t make you laugh, then smoking Purple Monkey Balls certainly should. It probably gets its name because of some of the absurd ideas that have a tendency to enter the mind while under the effects of this strain. It also has bulbous purple buds — that might also have something to do with the name of this strain.
3. Hindu Kush
Pretty much anything from the Kush variety of genetics is guaranteed to bring on the giggles. Kush comes from the Kush mountain range in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the cold winters warrant a good giggle fit to stay warm!
Chemdawg is revered by the cannabis community as a potent strain that almost always ends in fits of laughter. It has been known to cause a “pissing myself laughing” kind of circumstance, in the most literal way. Let that be a word of caution for all of those using Chemdawg to bring on a laugh.
5. White Diesel
Diesel strains have the characteristic petrol smell that almost everybody associates with strong cannabis. White Diesel is generously coated with trichomes, making it even stronger. It’s the kind of sativa variety that hits you quickly and cerebrally, bringing forth all the weird and wonderful ideas that usually accompany a good laugh.
Let us know in the comments if you have some favourite strains for inducing the giggles! We’d love to hear from you.
- Disclaimer:Laws and regulations regarding cannabis use differ from country to country. Sensi Seeds therefore strongly advises you to check your local laws and regulations. Do not act in conflict with the law.