Laughter is said to be a medicine yet those who provide it are rarely seen in the same rarified glow as, say, brain surgeons. In fact, many comedians, a recent study found, display high levels of psychotic characteristics generally associated with mental illness. “Obviously not all comedians are like this, but the trend does seem these personality traits are more common,” Gordon Claridge, retired professor of the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, told The Independent. “It is that idea of the sad clown.”
Could You Pass This Test?
A team of researchers from the University of Oxford and Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust hypothesized that comedians would resemble other creative individuals in showing a higher level of psychotic characteristics related to both schizophrenia and manic depression. To test this theory, they enrolled 523 comedians (404 men and 119 women) from the UK, the U.S., and Australia and requested they complete an online questionnaire designed to measure psychosis-proneness or the level of psychotic characteristics in people considered mentally healthy. The researchers also enlisted 364 actors to form one control group as well as 831 people who defined themselves as non-creative workers to comprise another, general control group.
The questionnaire, an abbreviated version of the Oxford–Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences (O-LIFE), contains four sub-scales: Unusual Experiences (measuring belief in telepathy and paranormal events), Cognitive Disorganization (measuring distractibility and difficulty in focusing thoughts), Introvertive Anhedonia (measuring ability to feel social and physical pleasure, including an avoidance of intimacy), and Impulsive Nonconformity (measuring the tendency toward impulsive, antisocial behavior). Sample questions on O-LIFE include: “When in the dark do you often see shapes and forms even though there is nothing there?”; “Are you easily confused if too much happens at the same time?”; and “Do you love having your back massaged?” The all-time classic also makes an appearance on this test: “Would you like other people to be afraid of you?”
The researchers discovered that comedians scored significantly higher on all four types of psychotic personality traits in comparison to the general group. The actors also differed from the general group in three areas, though not on the introverted personality aspect. “Most striking was the comedians' high score on both introverted anhedonia and extraverted impulsiveness,” wrote the authors in the conclusion to their study, which appears online in The British Journal of Psychiatry.
"The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis — both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder," Claridge told BBC News. The researchers believe this “unusual personality structure” may help explain comedians’ ability to make others laugh, which, arguably, may not always be a good thing.
The Truth About Laughter
“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you,” said Oscar Wilde. Clearly, a team of British researchers who conducted a study on laughter listened to him before delivering their glum though tongue-in-cheek news. The team of two searched Medline and Embase for reports illustrating either the benefits or harms of laughter. After analyzing the results, they found the potential benefits of laughter to include: reduced anger, anxiety, depression, and stress; reduced tension (psychological and cardiovascular); increased pain threshold; reduced risk of myocardial infarction (presumably requiring hearty laughter); improved lung function; increased energy expenditure; and reduced blood glucose concentration.
“However, laughter is no joke,” the authors wrote. “Dangers include syncope, cardiac and oesophageal rupture, and protrusion of abdominal hernias (from side splitting laughter or laughing fit to burst), asthma attacks, interlobular emphysema, cataplexy, headaches, jaw dislocation, and stress incontinence (from laughing like a drain).”
They discovered as well that infectious laughter can spread infection, noting that this is "preventable by laughing up your sleeve." And, “as a side effect of our search for side effects, we also list pathological causes of laughter,” a catalog of terrifying medical conditions that includes cerebral tumors, strokes, and MS. The authors grimly suggest that laughter may not be purely beneficial. “The harms it can cause are immediate and dose related, the risks being highest for Homeric (uncontrollable) laughter,” they concluded.
Ando V, Claridge G, Clark K. Psychotic traits in comedians. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2014.
Ferner RE, Aronson JK. Laughter and MIRTH (Methodical Investigation of Risibility, Therapeutic and Harmful): narrative synthesis. BMJ. 2013.