Monday, July 30, 2007

Mirror Neurons and Laughter

Browse any college's library and you're sure to find several books on the use of humor in psychology. Many of these books are very serious in tone and explain humor using technical jargon and psychological terms many are unfamiliar with, and reading this material it becomes clear that often talking about why something is funny is a surefire way to slowly kill the joy in conversation. I am very wary of this, but am also endlessly fascinated by new research that explains how and why people build connections through humor. With this idea in mind, it is interesting to consider a discovery of something in the brain called mirror neurons, something renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran says "will do for psychology what the discovery of DNA did for Biology." This is an extraordinary claim, and one that needs further clarification.

What mirror neurons essentially are is a group of neurons first observed in monkeys that "fire" not from the animals own behavior, but through watching the behavior of another animal. Mirror neurons in humans were also found in the interior frontal and interior parietal regions of the brain, and this discovery has potentially enormous implications for understanding and observing human behavior.

So why is this important and what does it have to do with laughter? The implications of mirror neurons begin with the idea that people tend to mimic each other and also feel pain when others around them feel pain. This idea was confirmed by an experiment that showed when people watch someone else get poked with a pin, their pain neurons fire exactly like the person being poked. These neurons came to be known as "Dalai Lama" neurons and showed how empathy works on a cellular level.

With this in mind I decided to conduct an experiment of my own to see the affects laughter had on mirror neurons. Although I didn't have magnetic imaging equipment or a fully equipped laboratory at my disposal, I did have the ability to measure hand temperature which is a standard technique used in biofeedback. I took 30 people ranging in age from 20 to 41 years old who suffered from headaches, and explained a little bit about mirror neurons and an interesting conversation ensued. Because these patients all had headaches and were all staying in close proximity to each other, someone suggested that perhaps their headaches were affecting those around them, which was exactly where I hoped the conversation would go.

A word about this. A common complaint from the hospital staff I know that works with headaches patients is that they commonly leave work with a headache. Although there are a couple plausible reasons for this such as the power of suggestion, I also believe that mirror neurons may provide an excellent explanation. With the thought in mind that mirror neurons may affect headaches, I wanted to see the effect a positive event such as laughter would have on headache patients, and with this in mind designed a simple experiment.

I first had the patients measure their hand temperatures under normal conditions and then measured the results. The scores ranged from 74 degrees to 93 degrees which is a fairly normal range for headache patients who are on a wide variety of medications that affect their temperatures a great deal. The idea is that the colder a person's hand temperature is, the worse their headache may be, as blood rushes to the head and away from the extremities during a headache. If a person can warm their hands up using biofeedback, they therefore can often reduce the physiological mechanisms of the headache. In my small experiment, the mean temperature at the beginning of the experiment was 83 degrees. The mode of the scores was 84 degrees, which 7 of the patients recorded.

The variable in the experiment was the movie Office Space, in my opinion one of the funniest movies to come out in the last 15 years. I had everyone gather in the common area to watch the movie, and, as I expected soon everyone was laughing heartily including myself. Beyond the fact that the movie itself was so funny, everyone also seemed to be enjoying each other's company.

At the end of the film I again had everyone measure their hand temperature, and this time the results were extremely interesting. Following the movie, the scores ranged from 79 to 92 degrees, but the mean score was now 87 degrees which was 4 degrees higher than at the beginning of the experiment, indicating that the laughter had significantly increased the relaxation response in the patients. More interesting was the mode of the scores. Following the movie 15 of the 30 patients recorded a score of 86 degrees. In effect half of the patients now had the exact same score following two hours of laughter. So not only did the laughter relax everyone, but it also relaxed half of the people in the room in so much the same way that their bodies were responding in an identical manner. This phenomena was also represented by the decrease in the range of scores, which was 19 degrees at the beginning of the experiment, and only 13 degrees following the movie.

So, although from a statistical standpoint my study wasn't big enough to make waves, I still became all the more convinced of the power laughter has on people's physical bodies and health. Beyond the measurements, people were also genuinely happy at the end of the film, and laughing together had provided some much needed pain relief for several of the participants. The positive energy in the room was clearly contagious, and much like the laughter clubs I visited, the act of laughter was all the more powerful when experienced communally. Although the study of mirror neurons on a molecular level is being done by much smarter people than me, I'm convinced of their power, and learning and studying about this discovery only strengthens my faith in the healing power of laughter.