Laughter: A Spoiled Network with a Glorious Future – Dr Tyson Ware

The hypothalamus sits enthroned on the sella turcica, taking up residence deep in the temple of the holy cortices. Perhaps it is the “seat” of laughter, although it is difficult to ascribe a single neurologic substrate to the phenomenon of laughter.

Laughter does its best to defy localisation. A complex network is involved. Network hypotheses are supported by functional MRI studies. Uncontrolled spasms of laughter can occur in the setting of bilateral corticobulbar lesions at the slightest provocation. Gelastic and dacrystic seizures arise from hypothalamic hamartoma epileptic activity. Voluntary movements of the mouth, tongue and eyelids can be weak, and yet the same muscles show preserved reflex movement in yawning, coughing, throat clearing, laughing and crying (pseudobulbar palsy). Hypomimic facies, seen in Parkinson disease and other pathologies of the extrapyramidal system, do not necessarily coexist with depression. Dopaminergic and serotonergic neurotransmitter systems underpin the biology. Thus, there is a complex array of positive and deficit neurologic symptoms and signs relating to our subject. Laughter can be both a healthy physiologic function and a hallmark of pathology.

Surveying laughter as a biblical theme, we discover texts which reveal our corrupted faculties. Although “a joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22), blessing is not found “in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). We would aspire to imitate Paul –  “to rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). At our best, we know that “in His presence there is fullness of joy; at His right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). At our worst, we fail to recognise the Messiah, and instead, mock Him (Mark 15:31, Psalm 22:7).

God alone upholds laughter in a pure and untainted form. Joy within the Godhead is complete (Genesis 1:31, Mark 1:11, Mark 9:7). His good pleasure is holy. Even when he scoffs, it is with righteous indignation (Psalm 2:4).  

The LORD’s sovereignty as the Judge brings about ironic retribution.  A catalogue of instances abounds. Samson, who does what is right in his own eyes, has his eyes put out (Judges 14:3, 16:21). Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, so the Lord Himself gives a sign (Isaiah 7). The plundering Babylonians will become plunder themselves (Habakkuk 2:5-7). It would seem that we become the idol that we worship, as deaf and blind as an inanimate statue… even deaf and blind to the One to whom we owe our worship (Isaiah 6:9-10, Mark 4:12, Romans 1).   

Inability to comprehend His plans sets up the naming of Isaac. Abraham fell on his face and laughed (Genesis 17:17). The same Hebrew word for Isaac / “laughter” (sechoq שְׂחוֹק) occurs with the idea “make sport”. There are watershed moments when the promise and storyline appear on the cusp of derailing. For example, in Genesis 39, Potiphar’s wife seems to make Joseph’s demise imminent, and with the “make sport” in verse 14, all Israel could be lost to famine. In another example, following the death of Saul, David’s path to kingship would be expected to get easier. Yet, in 2 Samuel 1, there is an ominous opening scene when brothers “make sport”. Has God lost control in the quest for a king? Can we be reminded in these moments that the trajectory of “laughter” / “making sport” stand as signposts that He will not fail to succeed in establishing His kingdom? Then perhaps our scoffing will begin to be regenerated. Then perhaps we will start to celebrate that He has the last laugh.

Laughter is a complex network. It is easily spoiled by any deficient component in the system. Our hope is that one day we will join with Him in complete joy;  when there is no more crying and all tears are wiped away. There is that great day ahead when every knee shall bow to the King of kings; when He is enthroned in His temple and when evil, death and decay are done away with. Then, shall mocking and derision also be no more?! These are mysteries… but surely then our laughter will join with His and take on a pure expression. In a way, perhaps we will become part of His network of joy. Rejoice, we have that to look forward to!

Tyson Ware
Paediatric Neurologist
Royal Hobart Hospital

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