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The Laughing Cure

Why a hearty guffaw may really be the best medicine.
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Cousins' Comedy "Cure"

It was Anatomy of an Illness, the 1979 memoir by late magazine editor Norman Cousins, that put a potential humor/health connection on the mainstream map. Cousins described how he recovered from a usually irreversible and crippling connective tissue disease with a regimen that -- among other therapies -- included laughing at Marx Brothers movies.

Of course, Cousins' success by itself is no proof. And researchers seeking to put medical laughter on more solid scientific footing have faced serious obstacles -- from a shortage of funding to the fact that guinea pigs don't laugh.

Lee Berk, DrPH, a pathology professor at Loma Linda University in California, is among those who have tried. In a series of studies, including one published in the December 1989 issue of the American Journal of Medical Science, he examined before-and-after blood samples from subjects who had viewed humorous videos and from a control group who had not. He found significant reductions in stress hormones and enhanced immune function -- including increased natural killer cells -- in the video-watching subjects.

But the cost and logistics of such sophisticated blood analyses limited those studies to small groups of five to ten people. Meanwhile, a Japanese study published in the June 1997 issue of the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills -- with all of eight people -- actually found a decrease in natural killer cell activity after a group viewed a comedy video.

Even research on pain relief has shown complex results: For an Israeli study, published in the November 1995 issue of the journal Pain, 20 people each watched either a funny, repulsive, or neutral flick. Before and during the films, each underwent a standard test for pain tolerance -- they had to keep one arm submerged in a tank of icy water and rate the discomfort. Humor clearly helped (though repulsion actually increased pain tolerance most).

The same researchers later found comedy videos worked best when "taken" a half-hour before pain testing and with at least a 45-minute "dosage."

While it will be several years before the UCLA study delivers its first medical punch lines, it has already solved a key riddle: Who will pay to see whether laughter really is, if not the best, at least an effective medicine? After all, drug companies, which spend billions to prove medications work, have little stake in investigating laughter.

Instead, Hilber turned to Comedy Central. The television home of South Park will fund most of the study's initial phases with a $75,000 grant. "If in five years' time this study can determine that comedy is good for you, we really have a marketing opportunity," says network executive Tony Fox. "[Forget] an apple a day. Watch Comedy Central instead!"

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