Laughing Helps You Learn, Babies (and Scientists) Say

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Laughter may be good for the soul, but it may also be great for the brain. A new study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion suggests laughter helps children learn new tasks. 

Researchers in Paris wanted to test how well babies learn a new task, and whether or not their learning capabilities improve when there's laughter involved. They worked with 53 babies, all around 18 months old, which is roughly the age children develop a sense of humor. 

The research team attempted to teach the babies to retrieve a toy duck using a cardboard rake—while also making the babies laugh in the process.

In the control group, a researcher retrieved the duck with a straight face. Rake, duck, done. But in the test group, a researcher grabbed the toy and then threw it on the ground, creating incongruity, “a key component of humor perception,” the researchers write. We laugh at things that are unexpected, odd, or a little bit absurd—like an adult throwing a toy duck on the ground, if you're a toddler. 

The tots proved to be a tough crowd: only about half the kids in the test group cracked a smile. But of those who laughed, 94 percent successfully mimicked the task and used the rake to grab the duck. That’s a vast improvement compared to 19 percent of the kids who didn’t laugh at the joke, and 25 percent of the kids in the control group.

This isn’t the first time laughter has been linked to learning. Another study found that college students are better at memorizing a lecture if the professor inserts jokes. "Well-planned, appropriate, contextual humor can help students ingrain information," explains psychologist Randy Garner, a professor of behavioral sciences at Sam Houston State University.

But why laughter helps us learn is up for debate. “I think that learning is probably facilitated by being in a playful environment,” says Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. He says the “haha” sound we make when we laugh evolved from the panting sounds our great ape ancestors made during rough play. “Laughter is literally the sound of play.”

One possibility is that laughter gets our learning juices flowing by altering the chemicals in the brain. “That act of laughter—or simply enjoying some humor—increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain, which provides a sense of pleasure and reward,” says Lee Berk, a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunologist at Loma Linda University in California. Dopamine seems to plays a role in which memories are formed "to support future adaptive behavior," according to one study. So by opening the dopamine floodgates, laughter may pave the way for memory formation.

Humor also decreases our stress hormone levels, which makes it easier to recall memories. “Humor reduces detrimental stress hormones like cortisol that decrease memory hippocampal neurons.” Berk explains. “It’s simple: the less stress you have, the better your memory.”

The new study's lead researcher, Rana Esseily, who studies emotion, developmental psychology, and cognitive psychology at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense, says more research is needed to fully understand the connection between laughter and learning. But, she says, “these results show, in my opinion, that humor (laughter) may promote learning and should be used in classrooms from early on.”