Sophie Scott (you can watch her TED talk here) explained that when we laugh, we are 'accessing and ancient, evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain emotional bonds and to regulate emotions'. She explained that we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with somebody, and that we are more likely to catch laughter when we know the person laughing. We use shared laughter in stressful situations to help us to physically relax, and to show that, 'if we can laugh together, we will be ok'.
The benefit of laughter when you are sick and in hospital, or living with dementia, or with complex learning disabilities is instinctively clear - we know for ourselves that we feel better and more relaxed after a good, spontaneous laugh.
Robin Dunbar's research (you can read his paper here) has gone further to explain how laughter releases endorphins, which raise our ability to ignore pain. "When laughter is elicited, pain thresholds are significantly increased, whereas when subjects watched something that does not naturally elicit laughter, pain thresholds do not change (and are often lower). These results can best be explained by the action of endorphins released by laughter." Researchers believe that the long series of exhalations that accompany true laughter cause physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles and, in turn, trigger endorphin release. (Endorphin release is usually caused by physical activity, like exercise, or touch, like massage.)
Other academics sited in the programme were:
Robert Provine, author of 'Laughter: A Scientific Study'
All of the academics on this programme seemed united in their belief that humour helps us cope with pain, stress and adversity, and that we are much more likely to laugh in company than on our own. Good news for us Healthcare Clowns!