You forget that thing that someone told you…this morning. You misplace your keys. You walk into the kitchen to do something…but once you get there, you forget what it is.
What you’re experiencing is a decline in short-term memory. It starts to go down as early as your 40s…and it’s perfectly normal. (Forgetting where you live or what your keys are for, that’s a different story.)
But wouldn’t it be great if there were something simple and easy that you could do to improve it?
There is. In fact it’s so simple, it’s funny.
HOW RED SKELTON ENHANCES BRAIN POWER
Watching a humorous video for 20 minutes may be all it takes to improve your ability to remember things you’ve just heard or read, found researchers at Loma Linda University in California. They showed 20 older men and women (average age 70) either a video of Red Skelton (the former clown who had a popular TV comedy show in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s)…or a montage from America’s Funniest Home Videos.
None of the participants had any cognitive impairment. However, half of them (10) had diabetes, which is known to contribute to short-term memory loss. An additional 10 participants, who did not have diabetes nor cognitive impairment and were of the same age, were the control group. They did not watch the videos but instead were asked to sit silently in a quiet room.
Before and after watching funny videos…or sitting in silence…the participants took three components of a short-term-memory test. First, a researcher read aloud 15 words, and participants were then asked to say from memory as many as they could remember…a test of learning. The test was repeated five times. The same test was then given with a different list, and then participants were asked to remember what had been on the first list…a test of recall. Finally, participants were given a piece of paper with 50 words on it and asked to circle words that had been on the first list…a test of visual recognition. Finally, a little saliva was swabbed at five different points, including before and after—you’ll see why in a moment.
Result? Laughter worked. After watching the humorous videos, the healthy adults did 39% better on the learning test, 44% better on the recall test and 13% better on the visual recognition test. Those with diabetes also saw significant improvements—a 33% boost in learning, a 48% jump in recall and a 17% gain in visual recognition. Sitting silently also seemed to benefit the control group but not nearly as much. Their gains were 24%, 20% and 8%, respectively.
How can a little mirth improve memory? That’s where the saliva comes in.
THE STRESS CONNECTION
Saliva contains cortisol, a stress hormone. All of the participants who watched the funny videos experienced a significant decrease in salivary cortisol levels. Stress, as the researchers already knew, suppresses the function of the brain’s hippocampus, where short-term memory is pulled together. (Over time, chronic stress can even damage…and shrink…the hippocampus.) Feeling less stress and producing fewer stress hormones, the researchers speculate, is what led to better learning and memory in the video watchers.
This wonderfully simple experiment suggests a wonderfully simple way that we could all boost our short-term memory—watch humorous videos. There are literally thousands that are easily found online…but here are three good (and free) ones…
• The hilarious well-known scene from the I Love Lucy TV show—when Lucy and Ethel get jobs at a candy factory.
• Comedienne Carol Burnett’s spoof on Gone With the Wind.
• Frasier, from the TV comedy series Frasier, sings “Buttons and Bows.”
If you want to stretch out the experience, try these funny full-length movies—Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), Raising Arizona (1987), A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Liar Liar (1997), There’s Something About Mary (1998), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Death at a Funeral (2007) and Bridesmaids (2011). For more choices, see “Classic Comedies to Make You Laugh Out Loud.”
Of course, you don’t have to watch a video to relax and laugh. Although it wasn’t studied, it’s a reasonable speculation that anything that lowers stress levels may enhance short-term memory. While this is the first research to show memory improvement, other research has shown that humor and laughter stimulate the immune system, make pain more tolerable, improve mood and even reduce markers of inflammation. That’s fun with benefits.