PODCAST-A person loses a loved one and smiles or laughs. Why? To the scientific eye, the seemingly misplaced humor manifestations reveal pain and regret. Dr. Perrodin explores popular theories of humor and demystifies the science behind laughter and discovers that laughter can be a formidable cognitive self-defense tool. This is known as Relief Theory.
DIRECT LINK to MP3 of this Episode: https://tinyurl.com/SDP49-AUDIO
SNIPPETS OF LAUGHTER – EXAMPLES OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DEFENSE
Conspiracy theories are frequently peppered with video or audio snippets, separated from context, of persons who experienced a sentinel trauma such as losing a child or a spouse. Per Relief Theory, laughter is a normal human response to a situation that is starkly incongruent with everyday life. This biological coping mechanism is well-documented and also an affect that simply mismatches to the narrative. This may explain why some psychologists classify humor as one of the “mature” defense mechanisms we invoke to guard ourselves against overwhelming anxiety (as compared to the “psychotic,” “immature,” and “neurotic” defense mechanisms). Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our own lives doesn’t cause us to ignore them, but instead seems to prepare us to endure them.
WHY WE LAUGH – HOW LAUGHTER CAN HELP BUILD RESILIENCE
Dr. Perrodin describes the work of Alex Lickerman, M.D., who authored the book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self Online: Happiness in this World (2011). “Interestingly, this same nervous laughter has been noted to occur in many psychological experiments when subjects have found themselves placed under a high degree of emotional stress specifically involving perceived harm to others. Perhaps the most famous of these experiments were those conducted by Stanley Milgram, who set out to discover why some people will blindly follow authority (the impetus being a desire to understand the behavior of soldiers in Nazi Germany). He brought in test subjects and asked them to deliver a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen person (the “learner”) to see just how much voltage they would deliver before refusing to continue. An astounding 65% delivered the experiment’s final jolt of 450 volts, fully believing they were actually shocking the “learners.” (It turns out, they weren’t. The “learners” were members of Milgram’s team playing a role.) In the paper he published on his experiment, Milgram made mention of several subjects who began to laugh nervously once they heard screams of pain coming from the unseen “learners,” and suggested this was a phenomenon that deserved further study.
BEING ABLE TO JOKE ABOUT A TRAUMATIC LOSS USUALLY REQUIRES THE HEALING DISTANCE OF TIME
Being victimized, for example, may make us suicidal when it first occurs, but with the passage of time we adapt to the loss and eventually may even find ourselves able to joke about it. What magic does the passage of time work on us that permits us to laugh at what once made us cry? Perhaps definitive proof that the alarm our loss raised when it first occurred was, in fact, “false.” After all, we survived it and became happy again. WWII Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl cited laughter as fundamental to preservation of his psyche. “Humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, affords an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
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Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.
In Print: The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self
Online: Happiness in this World
Posted Jan 23, 2011