Humour and Humor: M*A*S*H-ing It Out

Humour is an ancient word for medicine. Much like the modern blood-type mythos, there were four humours that said something about a person.

Humor is to be amused in any degree.

My mom sent me an article with this video about Alan Alda being diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease. I have to admit, I’m from the generous that knew him from American Scientific Frontier before ever becoming acquainted with Hawkeye Pierce. (Fun fact: I used to have a vishla-lab named Franklin after his character. He was originally my brother’s dog, but . . . Y’know. He became mine.) I used to watch M*A*S*H before school with my brother (the same who owned the dog) and reconnected only a couple years ago. I still find the episodes funny and poignant.

In my last semester of school, I was lucky enough to be in humor seminar.* Primarily an English class, this special topics course focused on comedy and its effects––including anatomically. I adore anatomy. Becoming a patient has taken some of the luster away from med school, but I still love the physiology of bodies. Naturally, I was drawn to this aspect of the course.

You may be surprised to find there actually isn’t that much scientific research on comedy and humor. It started around the turn of the century (the famous one, not the most recent one) but was dropped in favor of more “serious” studies. Dr. Scott Weems is a neuroscientist and author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why (Amazon Ha! Book**) .Is it the best textbook I’ve ever had? Maybe, maybe not. It’s up there for sure. He summarizes research current and way past in an easily digestible way. It also contains the best jokes I will never repeat. (But I definitely showed them to one of my brothers–– in the university library, of all places!)

In one of his chapters on dark humor (he has two of them, this one specifically on “sick” humor), he talks about humor as a sign of health and adjustment. A study conducted by a couple of psychologists showed their disabled sample group several relevant cartoons. However, these were in a waiting room with undercover observers before being asked questions. An example of this sick humor would be a cartoon of a noose or suicide cliff with wheelchair access. The results:

“. . . [t]he subjects who laughed most at the jokes were also the ones who were better adjusted. . . they exhibited higher levels of vitality, more self-control, and better self-concepts. In short, those who viewed their disabilities in the healthiest manner found the jokes funniest.

This same result has been found amongst widows or widowers who could joke about their loss.

There is, of course, well-cited findings of how humor has a positive effect such as stress reduction, cardiovascular health, and even a good exercise for that there respiratory system when you laugh. As Alan Alda shows, not just in this interview but the last three years, there are greater benefits to having a sense of humor. It’s important. It’s not silly, it’s smart. I’m sure there will be more findings as research on this subject continues. Dr. Weems puts it best, “Our humor brings us someplace new, emotionally as well as cognitively.”








Have questions? I’d love to pretend I know the answer. I did my research final on international humor, but I did my homework and was present for the other classes, too. I’d be more than happy to share my resources for any of you lucky people trying to research this kind of thing.

*The best day of class was when the teacher did the lecture without speaking. As far as a lecture on non-verbal comedy goes, it wasn’t what he said––or didn’t say––that got the point across. His finest teaching moment came when a girl was looking away (she was addressing the rest of the class) and he snuck his face really close to her’s without her noticing. Funniest. Class. Ever.
P.S. Is this the same class and girl from my last post? Yes. Yes, it is. 

**Be warned: the school bookstore removed the cover and added their own. The first thing the teacher said on the first day of class: “We have some disturbing books.” Here’s the website for Weems.