Why Pain Makes Us Laugh

Instead, she explained, laugher is activated like a steam gauge, where a buildup of feelings prompts an outburst.

"It's nature's way of letting out tension or a buildup of emotions," she said.

Comedian David Alan Grier characterizes it similarly.

"When your boyfriend, your girlfriend dumps you, you're grieving. It builds and builds and it gets to a fever pitch, it's like a boil that's got to be lanced. It's a human need. It's a human emotion. It's the human condition," he said.

Maidenberg noted that some people might also cry rather than laugh because they are taught to suppress tears.

"They may adapt a replacement of laughing instead of showing pain," he said.

While laughter is typically an acceptable expression, some cultures and subcultures frown upon crying, which is physiologically similar.

The Best Medicine?

In the past 30 years, laughter has been promoted as a cure-all for ailments, the idea being that a laughing patient will heal faster or be able to overcome more.

The idea gained momentum when the journalist Norman Cousins wrote about his experiences as a patient, where laughter may have helped heal him, in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1976.

But while laughter may have benefits and put a patient in a relaxed state, it may have gotten too much credit.

"Laughter is good, but it's not the only game in town," Mahony said.

One of the primary benefits of laughter, she explained, is that it distracts, something that can be done with a horror movie or a tear-jerker just as well -- and possibly better -- than with a comedy.

In the original article, Cousins himself admitted that his recovery from a supposedly incurable illness might have happened on its own -- without laughter or medical treatment.

So, while laughter may have benefits, so can other emotions -- as long as the person wants to take them in.

And what entertains us can't fully be explained by science -- it's a matter of taste.

"Sense of humor is truly the fingerprint of personality," Mahony said.

Sheila Marikar contributed to this report.

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