Why do we cry when we laugh? Let’s break it down into two main categories: psychology and neurology.
When you’re laughing out loud at Lucy Ricardo trying to keep up with the chocolates, parts of your limbic system (the area of the brain responsible for emotion) are activated. Particularly, the hypothalamus, which – especially for this particular episode – is responsible for uncontrollable laughter. Coincidentally, the hypothalamus is also responsible for other emotions, including crying. Part of the reason we laugh when we cry – and vice versa – is because of the sheer size of the hypothalamus. It is so small, that hard laughing can trigger other emotional reactions in the area of the hypothalamus – including crying.
From a purely experiential point of view, try this: think about how it feels during the peak of a good laugh. Now do the same, but substitute ‘laugh’ for ‘cry’. The emotional state is kind of similar, right? Both serve essentially the same purpose: relieving stress. Ergo, both can often be interchangeable for the same situation (i.e., watching I Love Lucy), without psychological consequences. Strange, right?
Now let’s take a look at some of the hard science behind an intense, tear-filled laugh:
Reason #1: Tear ducts: When you scrunch up your face during a laugh, you are putting pressure on your tear ducts, which can lead to falling tears. (This is actually more musculoskeletal than neurological, but it’s a common argument for the laugh-cry question, so we thought we’d throw it in!)
Reason #2: PLC. Short for Pathological Laughter and Crying, PLC is a disorder that arises from damage to the pathways in the cerebral cortex. If you seem to cry when you laugh more than others, you may have more interconnectivity between certain pathways of the limbic system than other people – and you may perhaps have a mild form of PLC. Severe cases can cause uncontrollable laughing or crying for no apparent reason.
Reason #3: The hypothalamus. Another neurological disorder that can trigger severe cases of uncontrollable laughing or crying is a tumor in the hypothalamus, which can hinder or disrupt its functions. Of course, crying when you laugh and vice versa is a natural, healthy response. But in rare, seizure-like cases, it could mean more. Talk to a neurosurgeon if you suspect a neurological disorder, or notice other symptoms.
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