The size of human social networks significantly exceeds the network that can be maintained by social grooming or touching in other primates. It has been proposed that endogenous opioid release after social laughter would provide a neurochemical pathway supporting long-term relationships in humans (Dunbar, 2012), yet this hypothesis currently lacks direct neurophysiological support. We used PET and the μ-opioid-receptor (MOR)-specific ligand [11C]carfentanil to quantify laughter-induced endogenous opioid release in 12 healthy males. Before the social laughter scan, the subjects watched laughter-inducing comedy clips with their close friends for 30 min. Before the baseline scan, subjects spent 30 min alone in the testing room. Social laughter increased pleasurable sensations and triggered endogenous opioid release in thalamus, caudate nucleus, and anterior insula. In addition, baseline MOR availability in the cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices was associated with the rate of social laughter. In a behavioral control experiment, pain threshold—a proxy of endogenous opioidergic activation—was elevated significantly more in both male and female volunteers after watching laughter-inducing comedy versus non-laughter-inducing drama in groups. Modulation of the opioidergic activity by social laughter may be an important neurochemical pathway that supports the formation, reinforcement, and maintenance of human social bonds.
- Positron emission tomography