Giggles that Make the ‘Grey Matter’ Grow!
Everybody loves to laugh – it is, without question, one of the great gifts that life has to offer us, in an often-much-too-serious world.
There is, however, a good deal of unnecessary disagreement about when laughter is appropriate and when it isn’t – even for young children.
Laughter generally has the stigma of being appropriate only in relaxed social situations. There is a general unstated consensus that the activities of work and learning should be more serious endeavours.
It may surprise you to learn that, in fact, laughter actually promotes thinking and problem-solving at a higher level. It makes you healthier and happier, and it actually grows connections within your brain!
In terms of brain research, laughter has a serious scientific side. Research conducted over the past 30 years or so demonstrates that, for human beings, the mere act of laughing has many physiological, neurological, cognitive and psychological benefits.
Laughter and Learning
Renowned psychologist and philosopher, Dr Jean Houston, once wrote:
At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities
Recent brain research has discovered that laughter can be a very powerful ingredient in the learning process. In formal learning situations, it may appear that laughter is just children being silly, but laughter actually enables better connectivity between the brain’s neurons – which helps children learn more quickly and store information more permanently.
From a psycho-behavioural perspective, this phenomenon is related to neural patterning and how the brain lays down information.
All learning passes through the limbic system (the emotions), before it is distributed to the rest of the brain. This means that the emotion we are experiencing at the time we learn something is stored, along with the learning, when we lay down long-term memories – and when, at some later stage, we recall that piece of learning, the emotional resonance stored with it also resurfaces.
If I associate a particular learning with a negative emotion (like fear, anxiety, confusion, boredom or frustration, for example), I am, as a consequence, reluctant to access and use that information. This is because, subconsciously, I do not wish to relive that negative emotion.
This avoidance is an example of what psychologists call ‘negative reinforcement’ – not doing something in order to avoid repeating a negative emotional experience.
It is the source, in older children and teens, of statements like’ I hate maths/English/history’. They do not ‘hate’ the subject. Rather, it is an attempt to avoid the negative emotions associated with the learning, and the resistance translates to an inability to perform – creating further discomfort and reluctance – a negative emotional cycle that can affect their future learning success.
It is a cycle that, sadly, often has its roots in a child’s pre-school learning experiences.
Laughter, on the other hand, is one of the most positive experiences in life.
Any information or learning associated with an emotional state that produces laughter will produce a ‘positive reinforcement’ – repeating a behaviour in order to re-experience a positive emotion.
Associating laughter with learning encourages a ‘positive learning cycle’ and a positive long-term relationship with learning.
Watch babies and young children sharing an activity which makes them laugh.
They are quite capable of repeating the same action or pattern of behaviour for as long as it elicits a laugh. And remember, for young children, repetition of this sort (not boring rote repetition, but fun repetitive behaviour) is the way that learning is cemented in the neural networks – the foundation ‘root-system’ – of the brain.
Laughter also makes learning more enjoyable – and if learning is more enjoyable, children are more likely to want to learn!
According to Dr William Fry, Professor Emeritus at Stanford Medical School:
Laughter aids memory and increases alertness and concentration.
Laughter, fun and humour serve an important development function for young children, as a way to express their growing powers of reasoning and creativity. The educational value of this bond between laughter and learning is inestimable.
With laughter as an element in the learning process, children will learn and retain more of what you teach them, and you will both enjoy every minute of it.
The Physiological Benefits of Laughter
When a person laughs, carbon dioxide leave the body and is replaced by oxygen-rich air. This stimulates the production of anti-inflammatory agents, encourages muscles to relax and oxygenates muscles and other tissues all over the body, from the scalp to the legs, all the while reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The physiological study of laughter is called ‘gelotology’ (from the Greek ‘gelos’/’gelotos’ – meaning laughter).
Gelotology reveals that laughter seems to be produced via a circuit that runs through many regions of the brain. Three main areas of the brain that are activated during laughter are:
- The cognitive (thinking) regions of the brain – which help you ‘get’ a joke. This includes parts of the frontal lobe near the forehead – a key area for future logical thinking and decision-making
- The motor regions of the brain – which help move the muscles of the face to smile and laugh
- The emotional regions of the brain – which help produce the happy feelings that accompany a cheerful experience
The Health Benefits of Laughter
Just a few fun experiences a week will elevate serotonin levels and help boost your immune system and improve your health – and, by extension, your longevity (life expectancy).
A Science Fact:
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, sometimes known as the ‘feel-good’ chemical. It has a powerful effect on mood and anxiety, and is associated with feelings of serenity and optimism.
Serotonin also has significant positive effects on other key areas – including sleep, appetite, pain relief and blood pressure.
Increasingly, studies are demonstrating that laughter and humour boost immunity, diminish pain, and help people deal with the stress of life.
Incongruity and Laughter – Humour as Training for Creative Thinking
Children enjoy incongruity.
Incongruity means something that is out of place, implausible or absurd – a logical or causal disconnect – such as a cat wearing a hat, or a mum wearing a moustache. Both these occurrences would cause laughter in pre-school children.
Children love incongruity in language, particularly the stringing together of rhyming words or nonsense syllables. Because language is supposed to be logical and orderly, and sentences don’t usually rhyme, it seems runny to children when the usual ‘roles’ don’t seem to apply.
Almost anything that goes against what children consider normal and predictable can make them laugh.
Children also like to push the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable, just to see how far they can be pushed. This is why ‘ bathroom humour’ is popular with pre-schoolers.
Pre-schoolers know that certain words are unacceptable and they may try to use them deliberately for shock value. Often the expression on a parent’s face is the source of much laughter and entertainment for young children.
So, how does this love of incongruity help children develop their learning and thinking skills?
Learning is, by its very nature, an alteration of the status quo, a change in the universe of what was previously known. The new world created by new knowledge, is, therefore, incongruous, with the old one to a greater or lesser extent. Humour helps children prepare for this reality, by making such ‘disconnects’ fun – and nothing to be disturbed by.
Similarly, creativity – like humour – involved making novel and previously un-thought-of connections in response to a given problem or goal
A child who enjoys humour – who looks for the fun in the ‘creative disconnect’ – is a creative adult in training.
Adapted from Pre-school Parenting Secrets – Talking with the Sky, Chapter 2
Written by Brian Caswell, David Chiem and Kylie Bell
Brian Caswell is an internationally acclaimed award-winning author and a respected educationalist with over 35 years of experience in the areas of public and private education. As Dean of Research and Programme Development at MindChamps, Brian has dedicated himself to creating programmes that enhance students’ learning, active recall and thinking processes, taking into account the latest research into how the brain learns and stores information.
David Chiem has a distinguished background in film, television and theatre and is widely acknowledged as an international expert in the integration of study, theatrical techniques and Champion Mindset Strategies. He is the founder, chairman and group CEO of MindChamps. David is a man who has crossed many bridges of success to achieve a remarkable synthesis of art, education and entrepreneurship.
Kylie Bell is a highly respected educator and researcher. With a Master of Education, she has specialized in Early Childhood research for several years. Kylie’s fields of expertise encompass educational, developmental and cognitive psychology, literacy, thinking and creativity, She also brings her extensive experience in drama and performance to her work with children.