January 2011



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By Nichole Force, M.A.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that we have much more control over our minds, personalities and personal illnesses than was ever believed to exist before, and it is all occurring at the same time that a flood of other research is exposing the benefits of humor on brain functioning. The ability to change the structure and functioning of the brain through experiences and the conscious use of directed thoughts is referred to as neuroplasticity.

The latest research indicates that the adult brain not only has the ability to repair damaged regions, but to grow new neurons; that willful activity has the power to shape the brain in new directions far into adulthood.

We hear a lot about the effects of illness and old age on the mind, but in the not-too-distant future, we will begin hearing more about the effects of the mind on the mind, and the power of the mind to direct and master its own fate.

The latest discoveries into how the brain responds to positive stimuli such as humor could open doors to new therapies for depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses. Perhaps by somehow stimulating and enhancing the humor processing regions in the brains of the depressed or anxious we can reverse the chemistry of their conditions. Why not use the positive powers of the brain to counter its negative powers?

It is a question that the fields of positive psychology and Gelotology are currently exploring. Gelotologists study the physiological and psychological effects of laughter, and practitioners of positive psychology seek to utilize personal strengths and positive emotions to build resiliency and psychological wellbeing in their clients. Both fields are the source of much research in the use of humor as a coping mechanism.

Unfortunately, researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that negative information has a greater impact on the brain than positive information. As a quick self-test of this concept, imagine that you won a $500 gift certificate to your favorite store. How would that feel?

Now imagine that, instead of winning the gift certificate, you lost $500. Research indicates that the intensity of your response to each of these situations will differ significantly, with the distress of losing $500 far outweighing the pleasure of gaining $500.

This outcome is so common that researchers have given it a name: the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is a result of the of the fight-or-flight response that is activated only during negative experiences. The adrenaline rush and increased heart rate that occur with the fight-or-flight response cause negative events to be experienced more intensely and imprinted on the brain more firmly. The challenge for humor-based therapies will be determining how to apply the humorous stimuli in such a way that it has greater influence in shaping the brain than co-occurring, and usually overpowering, negative experiences.

The brain gives more attention to negative experiences overthan positive ones because negative events pose a chance of danger. By default, the brain alerts itself to potential threats in the environment, so awareness of positive aspects takes deliberate effort. The most effective therapies would use methods of making our brains more responsive to the positive than the negative.

Of course, we all differ in the degree to which we respond to the negativity bias. Some people are perpetually cheerful and upbeat while others suffer from a complete inability to experience pleasure or see the so-called bright side.

Read in Full:  http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/10/20/humor-neuroplasticity-and-the-power-to-change-your-mind/

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