Laughter’s the Best Remedy

Groucho Marx once said, “A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.” Indeed, research suggests that humor can minimize our perceptions of physical pain. Various theoretical explanations have been offered to explain the analgesic effects of humor, and humor’s potential role in pain therapy appears promising.

Studies exploring the role of humor in pain perception involve showing participants funny videos prior to the “cold presser task,” in which participants submerge their hand into very cold water for as long as possible. Researchers measure the time it takes before the participants declare that the task is painful, indicating “pain threshold,” and the subsequent time that they can bear the pain, known as “pain tolerance.” One study found that when participants view a humorous video, compared to neutral and negative videos in similar length and interest level, they show increased levels of pain tolerance and duration. Intrigued as to which components of appreciating humor drive this effect, another set of researchers explored whether measuring participants’ cheerful mood invoked by humor, their extent of facial expressions of humor appreciation, or their focus on the humorous content of a short clip of “Mr. Bean” differentially effected pain perception. Interestingly, all three conditions yielded increased pain tolerance to the cold presser task.

The biological mechanisms that underlie humor’s effect on pain remain undetermined. However, some suggest that humor and/or laughter release endorphins, which are known to lend analgesic effects. However, this view remains purely speculative, as there is no causal scientific evidence to support the claim. Alternatively, two brain imaging studies offer other insights. That is, when participants view humorous cartoons, compared to non-humorous cartoons, certain brain regions are significantly more active. Among them is the anterior cingulate cortex, which has been shown to activate in response to the affective aspects of pain (i.e. the ‘feeling’ of pain). On the one hand, that the same area is active in response to both kinds of stimuli seems counter intuitive, but it may be that pain states and appreciation of humor rely on the anterior cingulate to detect ‘discrepancy’ in stimuli, and guide the emotional response to the discrepancy. In the case of pain, the discrepancy (i.e. I feel what I should not) is negatively appraised, while the discrepancy perceived in humor (i.e. this is not what I expected in this situation) is appraised positively. This interpretation is supported by the fact that viewing humorous compared to non-humorous cartoons also activates the human ‘reward system,’ brain areas that also light up when we eat chocolate.

While the biology of humor as an anodyne requires further research, medical practitioners, such as Dr. “Patch” Adams, have long noted its soothing effects on patients. As Freud once said,

Humor is a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of the distressing effects that interface with it.


Weisenberg M, Raz T, & Hener T (1998). The influence of film-induced mood on pain perception. Pain, 76 (3), 365-75 PMID: 9718255

Zweyer, K., Velker, B., & Ruch, W. (2004). Do cheerfulness, exhilaration, and humor production moderate pain tolerance? A FACS study Humor – International Journal of Humor Research, 17 (1-2), 85-119 DOI: 10.1515/humr.2004.009

Watson, K., Matthews, B., & Allman, J. (2006). Brain Activation during Sight Gags and Language-Dependent Humor Cerebral Cortex, 17 (2), 314-324 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhj149

Mobbs D, Greicius MD, Abdel-Azim E, Menon V, & Reiss AL (2003). Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers. Neuron, 40 (5), 1041-8 PMID: 14659102

Meghan Meyer, PhD (c)

Meghan Meyer, PhD candidate, studies social cognitive neuroscience at University of California-Los Angeles. Prior to joining UCLA, she worked on behavioral and brain imaging studies in the Stanford University Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago, and completed her M.A. in cognitive science, with a specialty in cognitive neuroscience, from Ecole Normale Superieur, in Paris, France. When she is not in the lab designing studies and analyzing data, she enjoys writing about scientific findings and their broader impact for general audiences.
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