Recalling times of laughter can elevate our lives.
Posted December 29, 2020
When was the last time you laughed really hard?
Answering this question in detail can release the same benefits as laughter itself—if we access our primary memories of laughter.
What are the benefits of laughter?
Physiologically, laughter stretches us aerobically, increasing and decreasing our heart rate and blood pressure and activating and relaxing our muscles. In fact, a hearty laugh can relax our muscles for up to an hour afterwards.
Over the longer term, laughter lowers stress and strengthens the immune system. It diminishes stress hormones such as cortisol, increases oxygen in the blood, enhances the effectiveness of T cells in the immune system, and causes antibody-producing cells to proliferate. Laughter can also cause the release of neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more serious illnesses. In short, laughter reduces the undesirable and increases the desirable. And it burns calories.
The emotional benefits of laughter are also considerable. Laughter expels the irritations of daily life and lifts our overall mood. It is impossible to laugh and be angry at the same time. Regular laughter maintains a brighter outlook on worldly events, decreasing anxiety and lessening depressive thoughts. Indeed, almost all the studies on the physical and emotional effects of laughter show beneficial effects, with no unwanted side effects.
Specific personal memories exist at two levels: primary memory and integrated memory. Primary memory represents our original phenomenal experience: visual images, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, and bodily sensations.
Integrated memory is constructed from these representations in primary memory, along with related memories and general knowledge, giving our primary memories structure, often in narrative form.
The normal work of personal memory is to form integrated representations from the images in primary memory, informed by general knowledge and similar personal memories. These integrated representations then become the dominant, most accessible representations in long-term memory for personally experienced events.
When we recall events in our lives, we usually draw on integrated memory, feeling and perceiving the remembered events more coherently but with less color and emotion. However, primary memories can still be accessed—by focusing on perceptual details or specific emotional and physiological experiences at the time of the events. The tart-bitter taste of grapefruit at breakfast, the feel of a particular silk shirt, the tone of our mother’s voice—and the feeling of full-bodied laughter. By thinking about these perceptual details and physical experiences, we can retrieve our original primary memories, fully and vividly.
When I recall the birth of our daughter more than 40 years ago, for example, I can call upon integrated memory, relating the events of that night in mostly narrative form, without accessing the vibrant images and strong emotions of primary memory.
However, if I concentrate on the details of our daughter’s birth, the images and emotions represented in primary memory flow into consciousness—and I experience the memory as if the birth happened last night.
It’s important to note that we cannot use up a primary memory. It remains intact. If we have difficulty recalling an event, it’s because the retrieval pathways to that memory have become overgrown and inaccessible with disuse—not because the primary memory itself has faded. If we find a pathway to the primary memory, we experience the memory in its original form. That’s how a memory we haven’t thought of for years can suddenly return with surprising clarity and detail.
By focusing on an episode of laughter in our lives, we can retrieve the original primary memory. Moreover, remembering the laughter will clear the retrieval pathway to that memory, making it more likely to be recalled in the future. Every time we access the memory of laughter, the retrieval pathway becomes more accessible.
If you’re alone, with some time for what Thoreau called “a wide margin” in your day, go ahead and think about when you laughed really hard. Access the primary memory of that event, relive the event, and reap the generous benefits of laughter.
Remembering Laughter: A Personal memory
I was a young parent, standing in the kitchen of our old house, watching our daughter coloring a large sheet of paper spread on the floor. My wife Virginia had just asked if I needed anything at the grocery store and then had gone to get her coat. I thought about her question and realized I wanted smoked turkey, sliced thin and sealed in plastic, what we called Buddig meats.
When Virginia returned for her car keys, I looked at her and said, “Buddig meats.”
She looked perplexed. “What?”
Abruptly, we both realized each other’s perspective. After she returned for her car keys, I was earnestly telling her what I wanted at the store, while she was listening to a repeated set of identical nonsense syllables. After a brief, confused silence, we started laughing—laughter that quickly grew uncontrollable, each of us dropping to the floor in happy convulsions. For months afterwards, when one of us said "Buddig meats," we would both burst into laughter.
Although that event occurred many years ago, retrieving that memory now still makes me laugh and leaves me feeling happy.