UCLA researchers are hoping that humour will prove to be the magic bullet in a study investigating a tantalising prospective: What if something that makes you feel good can stop you from feeling bad?
They are testing the hypothesis in a pain lab at UCLA Medical Centre, where children immerse their hands in freezing cold water and watch videos ranging from clips of the Marx Brothers films and The Simpsons, which helped them endure the ice bath. The researchers are seeing the prospect of using laughter to ease the pain of sick people and even debilitating diseases or even heal them.
Preliminary results show that children viewing the humorous clips are able to endure the ice bath 40 percent longer.
Some researchers however believe that laughter simply works as a distraction. They indicate that other emotions and even negative ones like sadness or disgust have similar effects.
Margaret Stuber, a UCLA psychiatry professor calls that "a very legitimate question," but says there are indications that humour may be able to produce more long-term changes.
The notion that laughter might actually produce healing enhancing changes in the body is gaining approval among psychoneuroimmunology scientists, who study the correlation of the brain with the body’s immune system.
Prominent humour-health researcher Lee Berk says the belief that entertainment is healing actually dates back to the ancient Greeks who built hospitals next to amphitheatres in order to benefit the patients.
Berk, assistant adjunct professor of family medicine at the University of California at Irvine, says he coined the term eustress -- 'eu' meaning 'good' in Greek -- to define what happens to the body when it feels mirthful, or the opposite of stress.
During stress, the body responds by producing more stress-related hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which increases the blood pressure and heart rate. Research has also indicated that stress inhibits the body’s immune system and makes the stressed person more prone to disease. The research has also indicated that laughter might have the opposite effect.
A Japanese study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that skin welts shrank in allergy patients who watched Charlie Chaplin's comedic classic "Modern Times."
Besides, Maryland researchers reported last year that people with healthy hearts were more likely to laugh in humorous situations than people with heart disease. Though the finding may simply suggest that having heart disease makes people feel less like laughing, the scientists think it also could mean that having a sense of humour somehow protects the heart.
"Maybe science is starting to catch up to intuition," said Berk.
The late journalist-author Norman Cousins laid the groundwork with his pioneering 1979 book, "Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient," describing how laughter helped reduce his pain from a debilitating joint disease called ankylosing spondylitis.
Berk, who was among the first to use science to help explain Cousins' findings, has a cartoon he likes to show people, depicting a doctor telling a patient, "Take two Laurel and Hardy tapes and one Abbott and Costello and call me in the morning."
That is the kind of advice the UCLA researchers hope to one day prescribe.