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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.”

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More Studies See Links Between Alzheimer's and Herpes
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Although it was discovered in 1906, Alzheimer’s disease didn’t receive significant research attention until the 1970s. In 1984, scientists identified the plaque-like buildup of amyloid beta proteins in brain tissue that causes nerve damage and can lead to symptoms like memory loss, personality changes, and physical debility.

Now, researchers are learning why amyloid beta tends to collect in brain tissue like barnacles on a ship. It might not be rallying expressly to cause damage, but to protect the brain from another invader: the herpes simplex virus.

As The Atlantic recently noted, a number of studies have strengthened the notion that amyloid beta activity is working in response to herpes, the virus that travels along nerve pathways and typically causes cold sores around the mouth (HSV-1) or genitals (HSV-2). In a study involving mice, those engineered to produce more amyloid beta were more resistant to the herpes virus than those who were not.

But when too much amyloid beta is produced to combat the virus, the proteins can affect the brain’s neurons. And while herpes tends to target specific pathways in the body that result in external sores, it’s possible that the virus might act differently in an older population that is susceptible to more widespread infection. Roughly half of adults under age 50 in the U.S. are infected with HSV-1 and 12 percent with HSV-2, which suggests that a large swath of the population could be vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease. Two other strains of the virus, HHV-6A and HHV-7, have also been found to be more common in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients than in the general population.

More research will be needed to further understand the possible relationship between the two. If more findings support the theory, then it’s possible that antiviral drugs or vaccines targeting herpes might also reduce the chances of amyloid beta buildup.

[h/t Atlantic]

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Heatwaves Can Affect Your Ability to Think Clearly and Make Decisions
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Dehydration and body odor aren't the only things to hate about oppressive heat. According to new research reported by The Guardian, living through a heatwave without relief hampers your ability to think quickly and clearly.

For their study, published recently in PLOS Medicine, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health tested the mental performance of 44 students during a heatwave in Boston in 2016. Roughly half the students were living in newer dorm buildings with central AC, with the other half living in older dorms without it.

Over 12 days, researchers had participants take cognition tests on their phones immediately after waking up. The students living without AC took about 13 percent longer to respond to the questions and their answers were about 13 percent less accurate.

The results indicate that even if high temperatures don't pose an immediate threat to someone's health, they can impair them in other ways. “Most of the research on the health effects of heat has been done in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, creating the perception that the general population is not at risk from heat waves,” Jose Guillermo Cedeño-Laurent, research fellow at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Knowing what the risks are across different populations is critical considering that in many cities, such as Boston, the number of heat waves is projected to increase due to climate change.”

Summers are gradually becoming hotter and longer in Boston—a trend that can be observed throughout most of the rest of the world thanks to the rising temperatures caused by human activity. In regions with historically cold winters, like New England, many buildings, including Harvard's oldest dorms, are built to retain heat, which can extend the negative effects of a heat wave even as the weather outside starts to cool. If temperatures continue to rise, we'll have to make a greater effort to keep people cool indoors, where American adults spend 90 percent of their time.

Our thinking isn't the only thing that suffers in the stifling heat. A study published last year found that hot weather does indeed make you crankier—which may not be as bad as bombing a test, but it's not exactly not fun for the people around you.

[h/t The Guardian]

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