“He put his fingers on my chest and commanded the power of God to go through me. It was like liquid volts of electricity shot right through my chest. I fell to the ground,” recounts ex-salesman Mirek Hufton of the time he was “slain in the Spirit” by charismatic Christian preacher Rodney Howard-Browne. Since arriving in the USA in 1987 from South Africa, Howard-Browne has been converting people to his Revival Ministries, based in Tampa Bay, Florida. When he touches people, he says, “They react. Some cry, some shake, some fall down, and some laugh.”
It is the laughing part – known as Holy Laughter – for which Howard-Browne is famous. His own revelation came when he was only 18 years old. “Feeling the presence of the Lord is like standing in a hot shower,” says Howard-Browne. “I was hit with joy. I was just laughing and crying for nearly three days. People who looked me thought that I was drinking wine, but I was not drinking anything! It was God.”
His ministry goes on tour often, and in the vast congregations he attracts, Holy Laughter occurs spontaneously during the service, spreading from a handful of chucklers to thousands of congregants in a matter of seconds. On a primal level, seeing others laugh makes you want to laugh yourself, but for those who believe, the urge to laugh is nothing less than a gift from God. Swept up in the sound and spectacle of so many people convulsed with merriment, congregants collapse in their hundreds, screaming with laughter, rolling on the floor. It is alarming, amusing and awe-inspiring. It can also be dangerous: too much hilarity can cause cataplexy, a sudden weakness of the muscles that results in lost consciousness and slurred speech. Cataplectics often fall over, which may give a scientific explanation for what Howard-Browne describes as being “slain in the Spirit.”
“I was hit with joy. I was just laughing and crying for nearly three days”
Rodney Howard-Browne, preacher, Revival Ministries International, Tampa Bay, Florida, USA
Revival Ministries is a Pentecostal Christian movement, and the BBC estimates there are between 250 and 500 million Pentecostal Christians in the world. Figures are vague – people’s personal beliefs are hard to record – but even low estimates find that two out of every three people alive today ascribe to a religion. So why believe? In 2009, Gallup Poll researchers found a “strong positive relationship between religiosity and well-being, regardless of faith.” A 2000 US study found that suicide rates among those regularly attending religious ceremonies were four times lower than those who didn’t, and some religions are more appealing than others.
“It’s better than doing crack cocaine; it’s better than drinking alcohol,” says David Wilson, a former drug addict turned holy laugher. “It’s a spiritual high I never want to come off of.’’ His drug analogy comes straight from the top. “The Bible talks about the Holy Spirit as being the new wine,” says Howard-Browne. “People come to our meetings to drink.” Ole Anthony, a US activist who keeps an eye on televangelists, worries about the hangover: “[People] get depressed. They get confused. All they can do is wait for the next one so they can go back and get another fix.”
Scientists studying neurotheology have run fMRI scans on people as they pray, and found that their brains may stop delimiting the boundary between them and the rest of the world, a phenomenon described by neurotheologist Andrew Newberg as a “softening of the boundaries of the self.” This may feel incredibly comforting. Depressed people focus on themselves (almost all suicide notes focus heavily on “I” and “me”), while people who rate themselves as happy tend to make statements about “we” and “us,” perceiving themselves as part of a larger group. As a group, however, Revival Ministries are hostile both to other religions and science, so don’t mention that, according to the 2011 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, the happiest religious people are actually Jews.
What happens when you laugh
You do it when something’s funny. You do it when you’re tickled. Sometimes you can’t control it. Rats and chimpanzees do it when they play-fight, which suggests laughter might be a way of signaling that something that could be dangerous isn’t really a threat. In humans, it increases heart rate, constricts the larynx (which makes that gasping sound), and releases endorphins (a portmanteau of “endogenous morphine”) into the brain, reducing both physical and mental pain. A good, sincere laugh even raises levels of antibodies in your saliva, protecting your throat from infection.
Other ways to boost your endorphins:
Physical trauma, like breaking a leg, triggers a flood of endorphins, giving a temporary sense of control, the better to make decent decisions in scary situations. After the flood dissipates, though, you may suffer endorphin withdrawal, a contributor
to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scratching an itch stimulates the release of endorphins, giving a natural high. But too much scratching makes your body feel attacked, so it releases histamine as an immune response, which causes swelling, which re-stimulates nerve endings, resulting
in yet more itching.
The endorphin theory of acupuncture, one of the world’s oldest medical practices, holds that pushing needles into peripheral nerves activates your endorphin reserves. Hooking up the needles to electrical charges may make the effect even stronger.
Tarantula venom creates a burning feeling and can kill. The same sensation is triggered by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. Although chili peppers cause no actual damage to the body, your brain releases endorphins anyway, just in case.
How humor works
Few scientists agrees on what’s funny, or why. The 2010 benign violation theory (BVT) by US psychologists Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw argues that for something to be funny it must challenge expectations or rules, suggesting an imminent threat to order or safety (the violation part), but it must also be quickly recognizable as safe and non-dangerous (the benign part).
Strong social boundaries are a fertile source of comedy. Warren and McGraw experimented by reading subjects a scenario in which a man buys a frozen chicken from a supermarket, has sex with it, cooks and eats it; 47 percent of respondents were “both disgusted and amused.”
Hearing laughter activates the part of the brain that prepares a smile. It also activates the frontal lobe (for cognitive processing) and the nucleus accumbens (for pleasure). People with damaged frontal lobes are more likely to choose unfunny
punch lines for jokes.
Schadenfreude is the delight felt at another’s misfortune. Schadenfreude is most gratifying when the target appears superior or seems to think they’re superior. Deflating their sense of superiority is a benign violation, though not for the target.
Perhaps the simplest example of the benign violation theory in action. Imagine someone jumping out at you on the street. Instinctively, you’re shocked. If you recognize almost immediately that the person is your friend, it’s funny; if you don’t, it’s utterly terrifying.
With the exception of schizophrenics, people cannot tickle themselves. One reason for this may be that while most people can visualize their own movements before they make them, schizophrenics can’t and so tickling themselves feels like being tickled by someone else. Several studies have also established that operating a tickling robot to tickle yourself won’t make you laugh, but a tickling robot operated by someone else will, both of which suggest that the real secret to a good tickle may be its unpredictability.