- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

Johns Hopkins University professor Ronald Berk hands out a syllabus at the beginning of each semester with office hours inconvenient for his students.

Mr. Berk, who makes up diseases and medications as examples for students at the School of Nursing, is not teaching drama or creative writing, nor does he have avoidance issues.

The professor of biostatistics and measurement simply is trying to make his students laugh.

“Most professors are pretty dull,” he says. “Most professors have no training in dramatics in how to really tell jokes and deliver material in a particular way.”

A few metro-area professors, psychologists and doctors find that using humor in the classroom, the workplace or the medical office can ease anxiety over learning, working or being ill and, as research shows, provide social, psychological and physiological benefits.

Mr. Berk, who does in fact have student-friendly office hours, decided to create fictitious, humorous examples for statistical problems since he lacks clinical training to use “real-life” examples. His doctorate is in educational measurement and statistics. He might, for example, propose a clinical trial research design with Zantac, Tictac and Nicnac for students to analyze data on antacids or Triamine, Triayours and Triatheirs for a study of cold remedies. The humor is in the incongruity between what is expected and the twist on what is not expected, giving the punch line, he says.

“They have fun doing this because it sounds ridiculous when they’re discussed in class,” Mr. Berk says.

Humor, however, is not only for entertainment. It can be used to get students’ attention, to provide a hook to the subject to be studied, or to reduce anxiety over learning complex topics and test-taking, he says.

“People don’t always listen to what you say,” says Art Gliner, founder of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, which supports research on humor and is located at the University of Maryland College Park campus. “Giving information with humor helps people remember your message,” he says.

In his practice, Dr. Lawrence Lessin, medical director of the Washington Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest, does not overtly use humor, he says.

“I do joke with patients and try to keep things on a positive, light note when possible,” he says.

Dr. Lessin is careful that the jokes he tells consider patients’ individual sensitivities. He may play off what they say, use a pun or tell a joke, perhaps about their diet, weight or other issues cancer patients confront.

“I don’t particularly try to be funny, but you want to keep patients in as good humor as possible,” he says. “You can see it lessens tension or stress.”

Patients at the cancer institute get a dose of humor in patient support groups, where humor can be used in presentations. It can also be a mood-booster during pet, art and music alternative therapies, Dr. Lessin says.

Humor used in combination with cognitive-behavior therapy, which focuses on cognition and understanding of events, can help patients who are anxious or depressed, says Lourdes Griffin, director of Outpatient Behavioral Health Service at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

Patients suffering from anxiety can learn to use humor to interpret their situations differently and put them into perspective, instead of exaggerating them into a threat or challenge, Ms. Griffin says. Humor helps those suffering from depression shift from an introspective and negative mind-set to a more positive one, she says.

“It’s very helpful for patients to learn to laugh at themselves,” says Ms. Griffin, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. “Sometimes people forget what is funny.”

Patients, however, may not want the humor or think the medical professional is making light of their situation, says Dr. Richard Restak, clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University. He recommends that telling a joke or using humor be done with restraint.

“You can’t be flippant,” he says.

Humor, if used, may provide indirect benefits, says Lawrence Mintz, associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and director of the Art Gliner Center.

“The research on the actual direct benefits is very sketchy,” says Mr. Mintz, who holds a doctorate in American studies.

Humor, instead, helps engage a positive outlook on life and a way of reacting to negative stimuli, he says.

“I think it’s attitudinal rather than physiological,” Mr. Mintz says. “What humor does is it gives you an alternative way of looking at things instead of taking them quite so seriously.”

Humor also can provide a sense of control over stress and boost energy levels, says Paul McGhee, president of the Laughter Remedy, a two-person business in Wilmington, Del., that provides keynotes, seminars and workshops on using humor in the workplace.

Research shows that the physical act of laughing can decrease the level of stress hormones in the blood, lower blood pressure, relax tense muscles, ease psychological tension and boost the immune system, says Mr. McGhee, who has a doctorate in psychology and spent 20 years researching humor and laughter. Keeping a sense of humor helps a person on a bad day avoid the negative impact of stress and emotion, he says.

“In the healthy individual, the prefrontal cortex plays a key role in something being humorous quite independent of triggering laughter,” says James Olds, director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, a center for the study of neuroscience located at George Mason University in Fairfax. He holds a doctorate in neuroscience.

If humor is funny enough to cause laughter, the frontal lobe where the prefrontal cortex is located can trigger the pleasure center (discovered in the hypothalamus in 1956 by Mr. Olds’ father, James Olds) that moves the appropriate muscles in the face and throat.

“So it feels good to laugh,” Mr. Olds says. “Laughter can be positive in terms of therapy. If you get someone to laugh, you produce in them very naturally a feeling of joy.”

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