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Brain Waves Suggest That Laughter Affects Us Like Meditation

Washing your thoughts and worries away with laughter-induced gamma waves. Or something like that.

by Michael Byrne
Apr 28 2014, 2:05pm

Meditation is hard. Maybe some people are more predisposed to it than others, but I am 100 percent not one of those people. I've tried and tried again and tried some more. Every night for months I would sit cross legged staring at a Miller High Life bottle cap glued to the wall and try valiantly to wash it all away—thought after thought... away... away... My version of meditation instead developed into a brutal physical exercise, hours and hours of running and climbing up and down the mountains around my house. I don't wash it away, I burn it away in a great big inferno. The net effect of clear-headedness would seem to be about the same as that promised by meditation.  

It'd be nice to have another option for putting thoughts away, maybe something lower-impact, and a bit easier on the knees. Researchers may have an answer of sorts: laughter. Results of a study released over the weekend at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego found that the brain wave activity found in brains engaged in meditation is roughly the same as the waves found in the brains of people laughing. Specifically, both activities correlate with a spike in high-amplitude gamma waves; these waves are significant/unique in part because they ripple across all of the brain's different regions. 

The researchers looked at three different groups in relation to meditative wave activity. In addition to the laughter group, which was shown funny videos to elicit a response, another group was shown "spiritual" videos; another videos considered distressing. The spiritual videos were correlated with an increase in alpha waves, an activity associated with sleep, and the group shown the bummer videos correlated with flat brain wave bands, which are associated with detachment and distress. 

All of this makes for a neat headline, but it should be noted that the research is ultimately pretty sketchy. It doesn't come from a peer-reviewed source, for one, and, well, don't the comparisons seem a bit fishy? Laughter, distress, spiritual videos—what's supposed to be associated with spiritual videos? Pensiveness? How are "spiritual videos" supposed to have a reasonably uniform effect (like laughter or distress) in a reasonably random group of participants? Moreover, tying wave activity to different high-level experiences like laughter and meditation is still a sketchy leap in itself. Finally, the pool of participants in the Experimental Biology study is extremely limited at 31, and comprised entirely of university students.

Gamma waves are implicated in all sorts of brain activity, from stress to depression to focus. In other words, as a phenomenon, the waves are super-general and calling out specific mental states as features of gamma waves and thus correlating them to other specific mental states that also have the very general thing as a feature is far from ideal. Nonetheless, I'll probably take note of whether or not my thoughts and worries are slipping away... away a la meditation the next time I'm due for a Peep Show rewatching session.