Laughter helps patients communicate emotion in therapy sessions

Laughter may be the best medicine, but the role laughter plays in psychotherapy has been disputed since the days of Freud. Some early therapists believed that laughter could have a harmful effect, while more recent thinking has held that, if used non-judgmentally, laughter can help support the therapeutic partnership. But none of those theories have been based on objective data.

In the October issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) report the first physiologic evidence of the role of laughter during psychotherapy. The researchers found that patients use laughter to communicate emotional intensity to psychotherapists, much like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. In addition, patients' and therapists' laughing together magnifies that intensity and may contribute to feelings of rapport between them.

"Current research on laughter in general shows it is more about communicating emotion than about humor," says Carl Marci, MD, the director of Social Neuroscience in the MGH Department of Psychiatry, the paper's lead author. "Many therapists have been caught up in the old notion that laughter only signifies humor, even ridicule, and have questioned whether using laughter in therapy is appropriate. We wanted to take an objective look at the occurrence of laughter during therapy and measure its physiologic effect."

As part of a larger on-going study of psychophysiology and empathy, the researchers videotaped therapeutic sessions and took physiologic measurements of both members of ten unique patient-therapist pairs. The patients were being treated for common outpatient mood and anxiety disorders in previously established patient-therapist relationships. Participating therapists practiced psychodynamic therapy, an approach that uses the therapeutic relationship to help patients develop insight into their emotions.

Throughout the therapy sessio

Contact: Sue McGreevey
Massachusetts General Hospital

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