Laughter is like dope: addictive and inebriating. People use laughs as social lubricant, the way we drink alcohol to ease tension and loosen up.
But this laughter high may be more than a metaphor, a study from Oxford University suggests. Laughing together may drug our brains with the opiates that numb pain. Laughter’s intoxicating effect on the brain, like the buzz we get from morphine, sex, or running, may also help hook us on companionship. The study’s lead author, Robin Dunbar, argues that humans may have evolved laughter to promote group-bonding.
When anthropologists showed groups of people fifteen-minute snippets of comedy videos, like The Simpsons, Friends, and Mr. Bean, as well as live-improv by the comedy troupe the Oxford Imps, the audience spent about a third of the time laughing. In contrast, subjects shown “neutral” videos—golf or nature shows—didn’t laugh at all.
Afterward, the scientists measured everyone’s pain tolerance using ice-cold wine sleeves, blood pressure cuffs, and a painful wall-squat. Viewers of the funny shows could stand pain significantly longer than the ones who watched boring or happy videos. This suggested that actual laughter dulled the pain, beyond the mere positive-vibe of the nature shows.
The pain-numbing effect of communal laughter may come from the brain releasing endorphins—the “endogenous morphine” that acts as a natural opiate—in response to the physical exertion of laughing. We seem to become euphoric because of our laughter— the breathless, spontaneous kind. Moreover, we get high specifically from laughing with others.
Alone, people don’t tend to laugh. We are thirty times more likely to laugh in groups. This “social chorusing” of laughter, Dunbar believes, led to singing and religious ritual. Our brains appear to be addicted to the communal buzz. We laugh, and our societies grow.