The Laughing Cure (cont.)

Next, investigators will examine the nervous and immune system effects of laughter: heart rate, blood pressure, and the presence of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva, before and after the funny videos.

Eventually, the researchers expect to explore whether comedy changes how kids perceive and respond to pain. Ultimately, they want to see if humor can change the kids' actual health, not just their stress hormones. For example, they may measure how fast wounds heal after surgery and how fast white blood cells rebound to their normal levels after being lowered by chemotherapy.

"You have to pass the 'so what?' test," says the study's co-director, Margaret Stuber, MD, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. "It may be very interesting to us that we can change salivary cortisol, but does that actually change anything that matters?"

The concept that comedy could improve health makes some medical sense. Studies show that anger, depression, and pessimism impair the immune response, increase surgical recovery and wound-healing times, and can even contribute to higher death rates. And what better way to counter a negative outlook than through a dose of comedy? "Humor and distressing emotion cannot occupy the same psychological space," says Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.

Cousins' Comedy "Cure"

It was Anatomy of an Illness, the 1979 memoir by late magazine editor Norman Cousins, that put a potential humor/health connection on the mainstream map. Cousins described how he recovered from a usually irreversible and crippling connective tissue disease with a regimen that -- among other therapies -- included laughing at Marx Brothers movies.

Of course, Cousins' success by itself is no proof. And researchers seeking to put medical laughter on more solid scientific footing have faced serious obstacles -- from a shortage of funding to the fact that guinea pigs don't laugh.

Lee Berk, DrPH, a pathology professor at Loma Linda University in California, is among those who have tried. In a series of studies, including one published in the December 1989 issue of the American Journal of Medical Science, he examined before-and-after blood samples from subjects who had viewed humorous videos and from a control group who had not. He found significant reductions in stress hormones and enhanced immune function -- including increased natural killer cells -- in the video-watching subjects.

But the cost and logistics of such sophisticated blood analyses limited those studies to small groups of five to ten people. Meanwhile, a Japanese study published in the June 1997 issue of the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills -- with all of eight people -- actually found a decrease in natural killer cell activity after a group viewed a comedy video.