I reach for cannabis mainly to soothe my anxiety, especially in these fraught times. But some of its other, non-chill effects — such as the giggles — also enhance my experience. If you consume weed, you likely know the feeling: constantly teetering on the brink of laughter, even if nothing remotely funny is happening. When I do notice something the slightest bit funny, I burst into hysterics, especially if I’m smoking with a friend. As a science-minded human who loves nerding out over cannabis’s effects on the brain, I asked experts to help me break down why weed makes you laugh.
Let’s start with what laugher truly is. “Laughing is really a reflex,” like coughing or sneezing, says Timothy Fong, a professor of psychiatry who also helps oversee the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. “It’s something that can be triggered spontaneously, by things we see and feel.”
When you use cannabis, you enter an altered state in which you perceive time, color, and pretty much everything differently. “That altered state makes the reflex [to laugh] more likely to be triggered,” Fong tells me, not unlike how a cold makes your coughing reflex more sensitive. Cannabis does this partly by boosting levels of chemicals in your body that trigger your laugh reflex, especially dopamine, Fong says. As a result, “things that aren’t funny become funny.”
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?
He notes that cannabis also lowers the inhibition of your laugh reflex — say, in situations that your sober mind would deem giggling inappropriate — by acting on the frontal lobe, responsible for inhibiting behavior. Plus, the binding of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound in weed that makes you high, to the endocannabinoid receptors located throughout your body spurs the release of dopamine and serotonin, “the happy neurotransmitters,” which can also lower impulse control, says Lewis Nelson, chair of the department of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Also, laughter really is contagious, Fong says, even when you’re sober, which probably explains why the giggles tend to hit me hardest when I use cannabis with a friend. Throw a substance that messes with your laugh reflex into the mix, and “everything becomes a lot funnier.”
In general, the more potent the product — that is, the more THC it contains — the more likely it’ll cause the giggles, Fong says. More THC results in more binding to your endocannabinoid receptors, more neurochemicals being expressed, and “just more noise, like turning your stereo up louder,” he explains. “You’re going to get more intense responses.”
Top Giggly Strains
You might’ve come across lists of “top giggly strains,” like Laughing Buddha or Mango Kush, on cannabis websites. But the lack of clear national regulations around strains means there isn’t a whole lot of consistency in the amount of THC, terpenes, and other compounds in plants of a given strain, Fong notes (which has raised questions about the scientific basis of strains as a means of categorizing weed, VICE reports). The levels of these compounds in Laughing Buddha bought in one state might differ from Laughing Buddha bought in another state
What’s more, everyone experiences cannabis differently, which can, in turn, depend on factors like how they consume it, or whether they’re doing so on a full or empty stomach. In other words, one person’s description of a strain may not hold true for everyone, and if you’re seeking out a strain with the express purpose of getting the giggles, it’ll be somewhat of a crapshoot.
The take-home message is that cannabis makes your laugh reflex easier to trigger, and as Fong emphasizes, it’s not a sign that you’re becoming psychotic. The next time I laugh my ass off while watching a nature documentary after taking an edible, I’ll know why.
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.