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Mind Matters: Laughter in the Lab

"What's it like to work in such a dry, staid laboratory environment?" I once asked Stephen D. Ginsberg, a neuroscientist at the Center for Dementia Research at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research (NKI) in Orangeburg, New York, where I also work as a researcher in psychology. "I work in a wet lab, not a dry one," he retorted.

As head of an NKI laboratory with seven to 10 scientists and as a faculty member in the departments of psychiatry and physiology and neuroscience at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City, Ginsberg is a productive scientist who has fashioned a uniquely lighthearted workplace.

"A scientific laboratory is a culture of failure," he explained in that same conversation, leaving me wondering for a moment whether he was being funny. "Most of our grant applications don't get funded, and most of our papers get rejected on the first submission." Ginsberg doesn't mourn. Instead, he told me, he announces to his group, "Well, we just got another one rejected."

"With the NIA funding pay line half of what it was less than 5 years ago, hovering somewhere around 10%, you have to have a sense of humor to keep the team motivated, maintain perspective, and stay grounded," adds Ginsberg. (NIA is the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, one of Ginsberg's main funding agencies.) He compares his role as a lab manager to that of a baseball coach who brings the team together by employing good-natured "locker room" humor.

So in Ginsberg's lab, if someone drops a beaker, it's not long before everyone is mailing a photo of the incident around, in case anyone missed it. "This isn't a corporate environment, and we can be a little looser," he says. "People get to know each other over time, and we know how to make each other laugh." On a few occasions, his approach won him bananas and old slices of pizza, sent in the U.S. mail, from old colleagues who share his warped wit.

He who laughed first

Steve Ginsberg

"Our ancestors were laughing long before they were talking," says David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biological sciences and director of the Evolutionary Studies Program at Binghamton University in New York state. In his latest book, Evolution for Everyone , Wilson traces the evolutionary origin of humor over the past 7 million years, noting that apes engage in "tickling and chasing games accompanied by a facial expression and panting sounds very similar to human laughter."

"The original (and continuing) function of laughter is to create and coordinate a safety and playfulness that is essential for the development of human and social capital," Wilson writes in an e-mail. Laughter is contagious, he says, which enables members of a group to feel the same way at the same time. By fostering a feeling of mutual camaraderie, humor helps develop a sense of teamwork.

"Laughter is highly relevant to scientific inquiry because it creates a safe and playful atmosphere for intellectual development," Wilson says. "My lab group is always laughing and joking around as we are doing our work."

Unfortunately, not all laboratories embody the same joie de vivre as the Ginsberg and Wilson groups do--or any other joie de vivre. Wilson is familiar--as most scientists are--with "labs that are run on the principle of competition, creating an atmosphere of pressure, secrecy, noncooperation, and mistrust," he says. "It would be interesting to know which kind of atmosphere is more productive and creative over the long run. It's obvious which kind is more pleasant on a day-to-day basis."

The case for laughter

Although there is no hard evidence linking laughter to scientific productivity, research does suggest that humor can relieve tension, reduce burnout, improve morale, enhance cooperation, and even lower blood pressure. "Laughter is an inner treadmill that breaks negativity instantly by releasing endorphins and reducing stress," Debbie Mandel, a stress-management expert, writes in an e-mail. "A funny face or a bit of silliness at work reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously. When we are more at ease, we can better solve problems."

How-to (and how-not-to)

It is important to differentiate between good and bad humor, Mandel says. "Laughter crosses the line when it disintegrates into sarcastic barbs that mock appearance, core values, race, religion, politics, intellect, or makes sexual innuendos," she says. "These barbs reduce the victim's status and undermine self-esteem. Sarcasm causes divisiveness while good humor creates camaraderie." Creating an environment of laughter generally isn't about telling off-color, canned jokes but rather is about people interacting and spontaneously finding fun in their everyday experiences.

Laughter is where you find it

Joseph Maciejewski, an engineer, told me about a running joke at his workplace, Applied Technical Services in Marietta, Georgia. While trying to repair a quarter-million-dollar instrument, an employee lost a tiny pin that held a critical piece in place. People laughed as the story spread around the department with the punch line, "He lost the pin." Several years later, after the employee was promoted to a supervisory position, minor mistakes are described jokingly as losing the pin to remind everyone that even management is human.

A trainee named Kelly described (on the Science Careers forum) how she used her sense of mirth to her advantage by planning a surprise Easter egg hunt in her new postdoc lab. At night, she came into the lab and hid candy peanut butter eggs everywhere (avoiding experimental areas, of course), including a giant golden egg, which served as top prize. The next day, any social barriers between Kelly and her new colleagues dissipated.

Ana Le Meur, who also appeared on the Science Careers forum, completed her doctoral work in a large lab in Barcelona, Spain. Because of the pressure to publish, the environment was tense--but this didn't prevent one senior postdoc from using humor effectively. It wasn't unusual for a timer to ring in the lab and keep ringing until it stopped on its own. Everyone would concentrate on their work until some exasperated scientist finally yelled "Timer!" The same thing happened whenever the phone rang. So the senior postdoc decided to yell "telephone" when the timer went off and "timer" when the phone rang. Soon, the gag was part of the lab culture, and the beeping or ringing noises stopped being annoying.

"Overdosing on seriousness is even worse than having a caffeine headache or ice cream brain freeze," Judy Gruen, humorist and author of The Women's Daily Irony Supplement , writes in an e-mail. Here are some practical guidelines to stimulate your funny bone and make sure it doesn't get you into trouble:

Master the art. Tell laboratory "war stories" with a humorous punch, read humorous quotes or stories so you have something light to share with colleagues, listen for relevant humor and delivery styles on the late-night talk shows, and appreciate the value of a good laugh.

Use it or lose it. When making formal presentations to scientific groups, begin with a relevant joke or PowerPoint cartoon to narrow the distance between you and your audience. When Ginsberg participates in poster sessions each year at Society for Neuroscience meetings, he playfully incorporates pictures of his children.

Use humor to bring your group together. When I worked at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and we celebrated a milestone birthday of a supervisor, we created a video documenting why the people in his life--such as his secretary, his mechanic, his dry cleaner, and his wife--were fond of him.

Don't overdo. Don't make the mistake of clogging your colleagues' inboxes with unwanted e-jokes that verge on spam. And although we all want to make memorable presentations, never let your role as a comedian outshine your role as a scientist.

Know your audience. Never offend by making insensitive jokes. A postdoc told (on the Science Careers forum) the story of a student who found a $20 bill on the floor of the lab. She informed everyone of her find, but no one claimed the money. Later that day, the principal investigator (PI) said jokingly that the bill must be his because he was the only one earning any money there. Most of the postdocs took offense. Although the money went to the student, the story about the PI was remembered long after.

Laugh. "Don't try to be what you are not," cautions Gruen. "If you are not known for having a sense of humor, tread lightly. Be a laugher rather than a joker. Any effort to be funny that falls flat or that appears like you are trying too hard will only evince wincing among your co-workers. Do what feels comfortable but try to lighten up," she says.

Leaving gracefully

Scientists who are leaving a lab on terms not of their own choosing may feel hurt, angry, and disappointed. But the scientific community is small, and its many specialized fields are even smaller. So how can trainees and early-career scientists leave a lab and protect their dignity and reputations and cope with their painful feelings? What tips have you learned from your own experiences? Please share your thoughts for an upcoming Mind Matters column by sending them to

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

Photo. Middle: courtesy, Steve Ginsberg.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700162

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