Humor: redefining a situation and realigning neural pathways. A review of “Humor as a coping mechanism: Lessons from POWS” By Linda D. Henman (2001)
by Mirjam Holleman
This article explores the links between humor, communication (including intrapersonal communication), and resilience, through anecdotal account of Vietnamese prisoners of war (VPOWs) who used humor as “a tool for building relationships and a weapon for fighting back” (p. 85). Using ‘put-down’ forms of humor, the prisoners would joke about, or try to trick, their captors. This enhanced their personal sense of control and provided them with humorous anecdotes with which to buoy each other up and strengthen their social network.
Twenty years after their release, the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among these men was no greater than among the general population. This finding was remarkable because, previously, a diagnosis of PTSD was received by between 50 and 90 percent of POWs. In her article, Henman (2001) clearly illustrated the “VPOWs effective communication and their advanced and heightened sense of humor” (84) as contributing factors to their resilience despite arduous circumstances.
Humor is described as a lubricant to communication, especially during trying times, as well as an aid in effective adaptation or adjustment to circumstances, while adaptability is defined as a “primary component of resilience” (p. 85), thus portraying the interconnectivity between humor, communication, coping, and resilience. As many of the respondents experienced periods (lasting a few days up to several years) of solitary confinement, humor and communication is approached from both an intrapersonal (within self) and interpersonal perspective. Humor is seen as a way of redefining a situation, “making light of the intolerable” (p. 87), and imagination comes into play in several of the anecdotes. For example:
While in solitary, Venanzi (one of the prisoners) created an imaginary companion, a chimpanzee named Barney Google. The chimpanzee often accompanied Venanzi to interrogation and served as his voice for insults and criticism [directed at the guards]. Frequently, Venanzi would address comments to the imaginary companion and react to Barney’s retorts. On occasion, the guards would ask what the chimp had said. […] Venanzi’s ability to mock the guards [through Barney Google] and to draw them into the ruse served as fodder for many humorous stories among the VPOWS”(p. 91).
In conclusion, the VPOWs experiences provide a poignant lesson in the use of “humor to restore one’s perspective, [provide a some sense of control], and to build rapport and connection with others” (p.93)
This article aligns well with the reading for today, especially Kathryin Bouskill’s chapter Holistic Humor: Coping with breast cancer, which presents humor and coping from a neuroanthropological perspective, as a communicative skill that has the power to transform and transcend a situation. “That which is threatening [can be] projected as humorous” (p. 225), with the accompanying positive emotions of defiance and resilience, brought about by the activation of “neurological centers of positive emotion” in the brain (p. 228). A neuroanthropological approach adds to both anthropological/anecdotal accounts of how humor has helped people cope in the most stressful of circumstances - by also showing the “physiological depths of humor as a coping strategy” (p.228) - as well as to neurological studies of humor and the brain by explaining how “ the activation of neuralological reward centers […] is inherently bound up in socialcultural contexts, social interactions, and personal meaning making […] to reduce humor to a hard-wired neurological reward system would undermine the socially meaningful experience of humor among the breast cancer survivors” [and POWS] (p. 228). Humor both reflects a cognitive shift in perception and induces it, by the ability to redefine a situation [through intrapersonal and interpersonal communication] and realigning neural pathways.
This humorous scene from my favorite movie “La vita é Bella” (life is beautiful), clearly illustrates “the value of a kind of thumbing one’s nose at an unspeakable or frightening situation” (Henman 2001:87)
Henman, L. D. (2001). Humor as a coping mechanism: lessons from POWs. Humor, 14(1), 81-94.
Bouskill, L. (2012). Holistic Humor: Coping with Breast Cancer. In Lende, D. H & Downey, G. Eds. The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. (pp. 213-235). Cambridge, Massachusets: MIT Press.