Everyone knows that meditation reduces stress, but studies have shown that there’s more to it than that. It goes further to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In doing so, it also lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn can lead to a lower chance of memory loss. But for anyone who feels like they don’t have the time to meditate, laughter may be just as good, according to two new studies presented at the Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego on Sunday.
The researchers, from the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University in California, found that “mirthful” laughter was comparable to meditation in the way it activated areas of the brain, benefiting it as a whole. “Humor reduces detrimental stress hormones like cortisol that decrease memory hippocampal neurons, lowers your blood pressure, and increases blood flow and your mood state,” Dr. Lee Berk, lead researcher on one of the studies, told Medical News Today. “That act of laughter — or simply enjoying some humor — increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain, which provides a sense of pleasure and reward.”
In turn, higher levels of these hormones — responsible for feeling uplifted — increase brain wave activity, or neural oscillations. It was these oscillations that the scientists measured in for their study. They found that people who laughed from something humorous sustained “high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations,” the only “frequency found in every part of the brain.” Essentially, Berk said, these people were exercising their entire brains. Both meditation and laughter are associated with these kinds of brain patterns. “We call this being ‘in the zone,’” Berk said in a press release.
For one of the studies, the researchers focused on simply brain wave activity. They tested brain wave patterns on only 31 adults while they were shown 10-minute videos containing either humorous, distressing, or spiritual content. Compared to those who watched the humorous videos, participants who watched distressing videos showed only a flat band on the electroencephalogram (EEG), which shows brain activity. This indicated that they were not interested, and even trying to detach themselves from the content. Meanwhile, the participants’ brains were filled with alpha wave activity following the spiritual videos — their minds were at rest.
For the other study, two groups of seniors, who were diabetics and non-diabetic, were shown a 20-minute-long humorous video, while a third group of seniors was shown nothing at all. They then took memory tests for visual recognition, learning ability, and recall. Among those who watched the videos, the humorous videos not only reduced cortisol levels in their brains, but also showed improvements in all measures tested — diabetics did the best.
Although lower cortisol definitely helps avoid memory brain cell death, Berk also said that the gamma wave frequencies help protect “memory and recall. So, indeed, laughter is turning out to be not only good medicine, but also a memory enhancer addition to our quality of life,” according to HealthDay.
The findings are especially important for the elderly, who are most likely to experience cognitive decline as well as a worsening quality of life — many of them become lonely — as they age. Creating a wellness program that incorporates humor may be the best way to improve their circumstances, the researchers said.