One of my favorite things about cannabis is its ability to shed a humorous light on everyday life. Like this Leafly user so eloquently puts it in a Blue Diesel review, “I laughed so hard that I threw up. And that made me laugh more. It was terrible.”
Okay, so most people won’t literally bust their guts over cannabis like this reviewer nearly did, but the point is that marijuana can make things seem hilarious, and that’s a beautiful thing whether or not your mood is in need of a boost. But as we prepare to launch Leafly’s first comedy tour in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Denver, the question occurred to us: why does cannabis make everything funnier?
Why Do We Laugh?
Before understanding how cannabis affects humor, it’s helpful to know what’s happening in the brain that causes laughter. Neuroscientists admit that it’s difficult to isolate specific reasons for laughter, as it involves multiple areas of the brain governing motor function, language, memory, auditory interpretation, and logic. Laughing is a motor reflex prompted by our interpretation of humor, which is a complex idea comprised of many different building blocks like our cultural, linguistic, and social contexts. MRI scans, however, have shown that humor is processed primarily in the frontal and temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex – and that’s where we start to see cannabis play its role.
Cannabis Stimulates Brain Areas Associated with Laughter
Studies show that cannabis stimulates blood flow to the right frontal and the left temporal lobes, areas of the brain which are also associated with laughter. In this way, it could be that over-activity in these cortical regions, thanks to THC, invites laughter. Could that explain why we laugh so hard even at stupid things while high? Science hasn’t revealed the extent to which that increased blood flow is directly responsible for stimulating laughter, but it’s certainly a target for future studies.
Cannabis Improves Moods
THC binds to receptors in the brain that modulate neural signaling, leading the blissful, happy effects we feel while high. A few reports, like these 2005 and 2007 studies, even suggest that cannabis compounds may promote neurogenesis in some areas of the brain for an anti-anxiety and anti-depression effect. And here’s another way to think about it: scientists have noted that the brains of depressed subjects show decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with humor, and if cannabis is able to replenish that activity, finding a good laugh is going to be easier.
Despite the promising results of these studies, there’s a shortage of clinical trials analyzing these effects in human brains. But there’s certainly enough there to speculate a chemical link between laughter and the THC in cannabis.
Laughing is Socially Contagious
When you’re stoned and in hysterics, it’s likely that you aren’t sitting at home alone (although scrolling through this Reddit thread by myself yesterday completely contradicts this assumption). In the same way that friends might like to crack open a beer together, cannabis is a social bonding experience. So in addition to the fact that cannabis brings a boost to our mood and stimulates areas of the brain associated with laughter, simply sharing the experience with someone else can make laughing easier. Why? Because laughing is contagious.
The reasons for this are still emerging in science, but researcher Sophie Scott dedicates her studies to the social role of laughter. In a TED Talk, she explains, “It’s an enormously behaviorally contagious effect. You can “catch” laughter from somebody else, and you’re more likely to catch laughter from somebody else if you know them. It’s modulated by the social context.” In fact, you’re 30 times more likely to laugh when in the company of another.
So in summary, cannabis appears to stimulate laughter by changing blood flow in the brain and exciting related neural pathways, and the presence of loved ones seems to only make laughing fits worse. We’re waiting for research to bring conjecture to proof, but considering the difficulty in studying even its medicinal, life-changing potential, it may be a while. Until then, just appreciate the fact that cannabis helps awaken the humor in us, making life a little less stressful.
Why is everything funnier when I’m high?
It’s not necessarily that things have gotten funnier after you consume cannabis — it’s that your threshold for what you consider funny gets demonstrably lower. Basically, it’s not me, it really is you.
As Timothy Fong, a psychiatry professor who works with the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, told Mic, cannabis impacts the front part of your brain, which is associated with controlling your behavior. And because laughter is a bodily reflex more than it is an emotion, “that altered state makes the reflex [to laugh] more likely to be triggered,” he said.
That means that things you might not find as funny as you would when you’re sober are suddenly hilarious, and things you wouldn’t find funny at all have a greater chance at making you laugh.
That is also due in part to the way cannabis lowers what Dr. Mitch Earleywine, who teaches at SUNY Albany, called the “threshold for surprise,” Thrillist notes. The surprise of a punchline or other funny element is what makes you laugh, so if your standard for what surprises you is lowered, you’re going to find everything that much funnier.
Hamblin also noted that there are probably other factors that enhance your likelihood of laughter when you consume cannabis. “We know that laughter is ‘contagious’ and that people are more likely to perceive things as funny when they are in an environment where there is laughter (as opposed to silence),” he said. Given that people often smoke or consume in a social setting, it’s understandable that they’d be more disposed to laugh around friends who might also be high. It’s also cyclical: If your friends laugh, you’ll be more likely to laugh, which will make them laugh harder, which will… you get it.
Do some strains of cannabis make me laugh harder than others?
There are plenty of strains that promise to make everything seem funnier, a claim that is often in their name. And as Dr. Spindle previously told Ember, that promise could serve as something akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The phenomenon is called the expectancy effect: Basically, if you anticipate that a certain strain of cannabis is going to make you react a certain way, there’s a good chance that it will. “It might be the case that different types of cannabis produce different effects because there are a lot of different compounds in cannabis,” Dr. Spindle said. “But in terms of saying, ‘this is what causes that’ — it’s hard without a controlled study to say there’s not some expectancy effects going on.”
So the next time you’re in a bad mood or looking to laugh extra hard at a Seth Rogen movie, pick up a strain that is touted to make you giggle — it just might do the trick.