Humor and Health : Mea culpa: I'm a Scientist

Appletree Rodden, B.S., M.S., M.D., Ph.D.

I believe that laughter is very good for your health; I laugh as much as I can; I construct situations in which not only I but those around me sink into shameless group laughter. I believe that laughter binds people in ways that nothing else can. I believe that humor and laughter have played decisive roles in our evolution from a band of cute, but humourless apes to the funny kind of people that we are and are becoming. I believe that an atmosphere of humor creates a substrate for mutual understanding in edgy situations where there might otherwise be only fear and aggression. I believe that the human brain perceives humor via modalities that are still mysterious to us and that it communicates humor as articulately as it communicates words. I believe in the power of humor and in its healing possibilities.

However, these are things that I believe, not things that I can prove. Evidence for these articles of faith is growing, but they are growing at a very slow and tedious pace. In the meantime I "act as though they are true in the face of lack of evidence for or against "

My mother, God bless her memory, would be so ashamed: her boy turned out to be a scientist. I'm not always sure about what I think I know, but I am fairly clear on what I do NOT know and one of the things that I do NOT know is that humor is good for health. I believe that it is; I go on the assumption that it is; I indulge in as much humorous activity as I can get away with. Nonetheless, I cannot say, as a medical scientist, that humor is good for your health. One of the most recent issues of the journal Humor (International Journal of Humor Research) is a very helpful collection of articles that vigorously supports my claim of global ignorance. We scientists thrive on ignorance it's how we make our livings. Ignorance is to a scientist what an unknown land is to an explorer. We rejoice in lack of knowledge and for us, humor is like an unexplored planet.

I am very tolerant of those who make such claims as, "laughter induces the release of endorphins ( happiness hormones )" because I know that not everyone has training as a scientist. As a scientist, however, I know that those who make such claims simply don t know what they are talking about because, for technical reasons, such measurements of endorphins (and their temporal relationships with humor/laughter) are currently as unattainable as measurements of the quality of drinking water on the planet Pluto.

Nonetheless, those who make such claims may be right; they probably are. Pluto may have good drinking water too but no one knows. No one can know. No one. As a scientist, I can claim with, oh, say, 98.7% certainty that most claims that "laughter is the best medicine" or that "humor is good for our health" cannot be substantiated by experimental evidence at the present time. Most of us think that laughter is probably good for your health, but we just do NOT know. The article that I mentioned above in the journal Humor backs me up.

At a time, however, in which the best cosmologists admit that they don t know where over 98% of the stuff of the universe even is, when the best biologists don t even know why we have to sleep, much less why we laugh there is no shame in knowing that we do not know lots of things about the universe in general and about the human condition in particular. It is, however, important that we scientists, from time to time, raise our ugly heads and announce our rigor-bound ignorance in no uncertain terms otherwise we cannot obtain the resources that we need to further our various research projects (bright, curious people, money, good joke books ). If most people think that it is has "long since been shown" that "laughter releases endorphins", then it is hard to drum up money for doing a serious project on the subject. This is particularly unfortunate when one considers that such a project would indeed be an interesting one, but one that would be very expensive - given the present state of the art of measuring endorphins in blood and tissues.

For those interested in humor there is room for all of us: prophets, clowns, scientists, etc. Each of us has her/his own role and many of our roles overlap. Nonetheless, as the poet Robert Frost said in his famous poem, "Mending Walls": "good fences make good neighbors." If we in the humor community are to be good neighbors, we must be aware of each others fences. For us humor-scientists, it would be helpful if "humor-prophets" checked the basic scientific literature before making claims about "effects of humor". If the claims that they want to make have not been published in first-class, peer reviewed journals, then the prophets should still, of course, make their claims: that s why they are prophets. That s what prophets do: they make claims. They may be able to see things before the rest of us see them and that s a very valuable function. They can generate projects for us stick-in-the-mud scientists to study. But rather than saying, "It has been shown scientifically that .", they might say something like, "it would be interesting if scientists would investigate ." or, when appropriate, "scientists are currently examining the hypothesis that ."

In the meantime, the hard and fast reality is that the notion that "laughter is good for you ." is as scientifically unfounded as is the claim that "sex is good for you". It s up to each of us to decide how to act in the face of these areas of abysmal empirical ignorance.

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