Want the potential mental and physical health benefits of meditation without the work of chasing away all those intrusive thoughts and feelings? Try laughing, a new study suggests.
Laughter -- the real kind associated with genuine joy and mirth -- sets off brain wave patterns quite similar to those generated when experienced meditators ply their mindfulness skills, a new study finds.
Researchers know that when hooked up to an electroencephalograph, which measures electrical activity among neurons in the brain, those practiced in the art of meditation are able to achieve a brain state of what is called gamma brain wave activity: In it, virtually all of the brain's higher cortical regions begin to operate on a common frequency, somewhere in the 30- to 40-hertz bandwidth.
Unlike the dreamless sleep in which alpha brain waves sweep across the brain, or the cacophony of alert mental activity associated with beta brain waves, gamma waves tend to be synchronous throughout the brain. It's the brain wave pattern associated with cognitive "flow," with being "in the zone," with the highest state of cognitive processing.
And the gamma brain wave state is as pleasurable as it is powerful: The neurochemical dopamine, the fuel of the brain's reward circuitry, flows freely when gamma waves prevail. That makes gamma, once experienced, a state we want to return to again and again.
The research was presented in San Diego this week by Dr. Lee Berk, a psychosomatic medicine specialist at Loma Linda University's School of Medicine. Berk told the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's 2014 meeting that, for 31 university students whose scalps were rigged up with listening electrodes while they watched videos either distressing or comical, unfettered laughter was the thing that brought their brain waves most consistently into a mock-meditative state.
And fast too. "It took off like a rocket," Berk said. After subjects were settled in front of a humor video they had pre-rated as really tickling their funny bone, the laughing out loud began. And in short order, cortical regions from front to back and ear to ear were humming on a single frequency: gamma.
The contrast was stark between that electrical brain state and that induced when subjects watched a one-minute video they found distressing. In those cases, Berk said, the brain's electrical activity varied across regions, but it stayed on average at low frequencies.
"It was flat-linish," Berk aid, "a sort of shutting-down reaction."
For the brain-wave-reading sessions, subjects were offered a range of comic and slapstick videos from sources such as YouTube and "America's Funniest Home Videos." Much of the comedy offered was presented before an audience, heightening, for some, the sense of infectious hilarity. Dark or derogatory humor was not among the choices.
Among the distressing videos were snippets of horror stories. Among the most commonly cited as most-distressing was the raw opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan," in which the Allies' landing in Normandy, where thousands of soldiers charged to their death, was depicted.
Meditation, with its well-established benefits, may not be for everyone, Berk said. But humor is certainly within reach for all of us, and in the interest of our health, he said, we should dose ourselves regularly.
"I'm serious about laughter," Berk said in an interview. It's medicine, he said. "We need to tune into it and reap the reward."