Why Marijuana Makes Things Funnier, Medically Speaking

How many times have you found yourself going on and on about some hysterical new movie — telling your friends they have to watch it or else they will never fully get you — only to realize that this “supremely hilarious…masterpiece” wasn’t actually a movie at all, but a stack of firewood? Pretty embarrassing. How could you have been so mistaken? Ah, that’s right, it’s because you were on drugs. Well, who’s laughing now? Guess what — still you, because you’re still on drugs. Hey. HEY. [snapping fingers in front of your eyelids] Hey… there you are!

About half of the U.S. population has personally experienced the effects of marijuana on the body’s delicate equilibrium.1 According to a popular clinical reference, the “adverse reactions” (and the percentage of people who experience them) include the following:

Central nervous system: Confusion (1% to 7%), disorientation (5%), vertigo (4% to 5%), attention disturbance (3% to 5%), dissocitation (3%), euphoria (3%), headache (3%), insomnia (3%), panic attack (3%), hallucination (up to 3%), amnesia (2%), anxiety (2%), lethargy (2%), malaise (2%), depression (1% to 2%), memory impairment (1%), paranoia (1%)2

Now, a 1-7% risk of confusion may not seem too menacing; but when you factor in that, at any given time, 40-70% of the population is already pretty confused (estimation mine) (but also), that’s actually kind of significant. Who will be left to care for our children? And to the 3% of you who have dealt with the adversity of euphoria, please, share your stories! Not all who wander are lost!

We see that marijuana can have lots of strange effects on the central nervous system, but, as you probably noticed, “hilarity” is not among them. Why, then, did you find that stupid soap opera so intensely funny last night? You only laughed a medium amount when you watched it earlier in the day, in sobriety. Why does this always happen?

In their book The Healing Magic of Cannabis, Beverly Potter and Dan Joy (birth name Dave Ralston) discuss the “detached perspective” that one acquires when high as a source of finding things funnier. As you come to think differently from your normal self, it’s like having a little stand-up comedian walking back and forth fidgeting with the mic stand in your brain. You may find yourself laughingly musing, “I never thought of it that way before. That’s a realistic but unique take on that normal thing, from a perspective not too unlike my own — because it is actually still my own!” Continued laughter. If you said that out loud, you’ll probably be politely asked to leave the party. But, it’s cool. You and your mini Mitch Hedberg can just go do anything you want and have great fun. Maybe go to the gun range and just laugh and laugh, together!

Marijuana obviously does change the way you think, but we don’t completely understand how. (Come on, science, where you at?) We’ve found that it increases blood flow to certain parts of the brain, namely the right frontal and left temporal lobes as well as the cerebellum3,4. Ooh, do tell. Okay, so, even better, a recent article reviewed a ton of functional medical imaging studies (SPECT, PET, and fMRI) and found that there’s also relatively increased metabolic activity in parts of the brain (the frontal and anterior cingulate cortex) during cognitive tasks when people are high as compared with when they aren’t5.  As a bonus, the same paper found that in most studies there were no actual structural differences between the brains of marijuana users and nonusers. So, all those mornings your mom made you watch her fry eggs as she whispered in your ear about the structural damage that drugs would do to your brain — she was completely bluffing. Meaning, it’s okay you don’t feel remorse for the time you “accidentally” knocked the boiling pot off the stove onto her arm.

Still, the better part of the answer is probably that marijuana elevates your entire mood and, thereby, inclines you to laugh more. That’s done less through changes in blood flow patterns and more through release of neurotransmitters.

When you smoke pot, THC gets absorbed into your blood and then squeezes into your brain where it binds to cannabinoid receptors. That’s seriously what they’re called — for a long time we didn’t know of anything else that bound to these receptors, so they were named for cannabis. “Why does our brain have receptors for THC (a chemical that the human body does not produce)? Why would that evolve? Were we so destined to discover smoking marijuana?” Anyway, THC binds to the cannabinoid receptors, thereby activating the mesolimbic system and causing your brain to release dopamine and endorphins — the same end result as when you exercise or fall in love or see a bird that’s been on your list for a long time. And you don’t even have to go running or even venture into society to get that feeling. All you need is be a laid-back dude, know a guy, and not be a narc. (Are you a narc? Take this quiz!) Our generation is totally accustomed to this sort of instant gratification/very little work paradigm, so we’re like putty in the hands of marijuana salespeople. My friend Roger literally lets them smack him in the face. I’m like, Roger, come on, bro!

So you’re in a great mood, your brain has you feeling like you’re in love and on top of the world, and you didn’t even have to try hard to feel that way — of course you’re going to be inclined to laugh and be generally merry.

Also, we don’t exactly know why, but marijuana makes people have these fits of reflexive laughter — “fatuous” laughter, as it’s called in the literature. We’ve known about this effect since at least the 1st century, when (and this is completely true) Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History (Book XXIV, C. 164) of cannabis:

Gelotophyllis (literally “leaves of laughter”) grows in Bactria and along the Borysthenes. If this be taken in myrrh and wine all kinds of phantoms beset the mind, causing laughter which persists until the kernels of pine-nuts are taken with pepper and honey in palm wine.6, 7

(Hence the origin of the buzzkill expression “I think I’ve been pined and peppered.”)(which was derived from the original “I think someone pined, peppered, and honeyed my palm wine; I’m going home.”)

So, marijuana causes this reflexive laughter, like how you laugh when someone is tickling you, even if nothing is being perceived as funny. Combine that with the fact that we know that laughter is “contagious”8 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)9, and voilà: you’re with friends, high, watching a movie, and everyone is having these drug-induced fits of contagious laughter, you’re probably more inclined both to laugh and to think, hey, that movie (or wood, or soap) really was funny. Yes?!

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the movie industry would love it if everyone in the theaters were high. Why do you think California was the first state to get so close to legalization? If you don’t think Schwartzenegger had a hand in the pocket of the Apatow Lobby with the whole Prop 19 thing, your head is in the sand.

Just to put the nail in the coffin, these neurotransmitters that your brain releases when you’re high — they’re also the same ones that give you enjoyment from sex. Thus, we have the explanation for why people always laugh during sex. (I mean not on TV or in pornography, but you know how in real life people always seem like they’re trying so hard to fight back laughter?) This may also tie into the statistic that marijuana use is a lot more prevalent among people who are separated/divorced compared to people who are married10 — it’s filling the void of not having a lover. Totally healthy!

In closing, this seems like a pretty simple explanation for why you’d be inclined to laugh more and find things funnier when you’re high. But, still, there’s probably a lot more to it that we don’t yet understand. Plus, there may be other strange sensory issues at play, like whatever is behind the fact that people on marijuana will reliably report that colors are brighter and music is more vivid.11  Also, their time perception is distorted; compared to sober controls, they perceive that time is moving faster. Spatial perception is often messed up, too. So, yes, this could all be due to the general mood alteration from the mesolimbic mechanism, but I bet there’s more to it. And with so much other significantly more pressing stuff to research in the medical world, I wouldn’t expect an answer to this for a while.

Until then, in the words of esteemed art teacher and kiln enthusiast Geoffrey Jellineck: “Look, all I’m saying is if you still want to smoke pot, then be prepared to spend a lot of time laughing with your friends.”

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Alright, guys. Come have a sit on my knee for a minute. It’s okay, your mom said it was alright. Okay, listen.

All this talk of pot is really entertaining. But, also there are some things about it that aren’t great. It’s worth knowing that there is research suggesting it causes impaired respiratory function and may be linked to cardiovascular disease and immune system alterations. Also there is at least a correlation between marijuana use and mental illness (causation? reverse?), including earlier onset of schizophrenia. And, finally, current thought is that 1 in 11 regular users will have issues with dependence/addiction. If you’re using marijuana and noticing problems with your mood, relationships, health, job, etc., the US National Institute on Drug Abuse is a good place to start in terms of educational material and info for support resources.

Okay, run along now! Go make your own lives. Carve a niche. Never do anything illegal, ever!

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[1]  National Institute on Drug Abuse.  http://drugabuse.gov/infofacts/marijuana.html.  17 Mar 2011

[2]  “Tetrahydrocannabinol and Cannabidiol Drug Information.”  Uptodate.com.  17 Mar 2011.

[3]  Sneider JT. Pope HG Jr. Silveri MM. Simpson NS. Gruber SA. Yurgelun-Todd DA.  Altered regional blood volume in chronic cannabis smokers.  Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2008; 18(8): 612–619.

[4]  Sneider JT. Pope HG Jr. Silveri MM. Simpson NS. Gruber SA. Yurgelun-Todd DA.

Experimental & Clinical Psychopharmacology 2006; 14(4):422-8.

[5]  Martín-Santos R, Fagundo AB, Crippa JA, Atakan Z, et al.  Neuroimaging in cannabis use: a systematic review of the literature.  Psychol Med. 2010;40(3):383-98.

[6]  Pliny.  Natural History, Books XXIV-XXVII; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1980.

[7]  Russo, EB.  History of Cannabis and Its Preparations in Saga, Science, and Sobriquet.  Chemistry & Biodiversity 2007; 8(4), 1614-1648.

[8]  Provine, R.   Contagious Laughter: Laughter is a Sufficient Stimulus for Laughs and Smiles. Psychonomic Soc 1992; 30(1):1–4.

[9]  Provine, R. R. 1992. Contagious laughter: Laughter is a sufficient stimulus for laughs and smiles. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 30: 1- 4.

[10]  Degenhardt, L, Chiu, WT, Sampson, N, et al. Epidemiological patterns of extra-medical drug use in the United States: evidence from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, 2001-2003. Drug Alcohol Depend 2007; 90: 210.

[11]  Ashton, CH. Pharmacology and effects of cannabis: a brief review. Br J Psychiatry 2001; 178: 101.

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Dr. Jim Hamblin is a radiology resident and a way more fun guy than your doctor.

Why Marijuana Makes Things Funnier, Medically Speaking