There are few things I love more than a good, senseless giggle epidemic—you know, the contagious laughter that starts when patient zero pronounces quiche as “kweesh” at brunch. And that cackle fit, though unquestionably silly, makes sense—something objectively funny-ish happened. But what about the case of when, say, your co-worker starts snickering at at something on their computer screen, and though only they can see it, the whole team ends up in hysterics? It seems that sometimes we start laughing simply because someone else is laughing—which might make it the most joyful communicative disease around. Could it be?
The short answer here is a loud, cackling yes that the giggles are contagious. A 2006 study by researchers from the University College London and Imperial College London found this is because positive sounds, such as laughter, tend to trigger a response in the premotor cortical region, i.e., the part of our brain that reacts to sound. When we see our toddler niece giggle while watching Moana, for example, the premotor cortical region tells us to smile, and smiling makes us think we’re about to laugh. That phenomenon then compounds with an innate, primitive urge reflex to mimic each other’s emotions. But wait, there’s more:
“Another [person’s] laughter can certainly jump-start one’s own seemingly uncontrollable laughter when you are on the same page as someone (same sense of humor), need a release yourself, or enjoy the inappropriateness more than the actual humor,” says clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin, PsyD.
“Another [person’s] laughter can certainly jump-start one’s own seemingly uncontrollable laughter when you are on the same page as someone (same sense of humor), need a release yourself, or enjoy the inappropriateness more than the actual humor.” —clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin, PsyD.
That last point definitely informs why we’re known to laugh at the worst moments. If you’re, for example, the teary-eyed maid of honor at your best friend’s wedding, and her bridesmaid cousin lets out a fatal chortle during wedding vows for whatever reason, you may well follow suit with ill-timed laughter—at which point, you may well take down the whole damn bridal party with you. From there, a giggle epidemic might ensue among all wedding guests, and none other than endorphins may be to blame.
“Endorphins are released when we laugh, and if another begins to ‘ride this chemical wave,’ we can easily jump on that wave as well,” Dr. Irwin says. “This is particularly true in situations that are stressful, when part of us craves a release.” Laughing so hard it hurts, like literally, signals your body to produce more and more endorphins and give you an instant mood boost. And if you combine this with another endorphin-boosting wellness practice, be it laughter yoga or something else, you’ll really get those chemicals rushing.
But the best reason for letting the giggle epidemic consume you? Well, it goes back to that sense of “release.” A 2017 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that when two friends watched a series of comedy clips together, brain scans revealed that joining in a laugh triggered endogenous opioid release. This release is regarded as important for social bonding, which points to why you feel 110 percent closer to someone once you’ve established a good inside joke. Co-laughter, then, may just be the best medicine.
So, the final diagnosis? Laughter is indeed contagious, and something worth spreading around. Unlike, you know. Measles.
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