Laughter – why it really is the best medicine

Tickle a child and make them giggle, do it again and they giggle again…. repeat and pretty soon the next time you just have to give them the same look, move your hands in the same way and they will giggle.

Look at comedians on stage – they’ll tell a good joke, get a response, a great laugh from the audience. They then walk around a bit as they build up to their next punchline and then go and stand in the same place as last time, as they deliver the next punchline. They do this a few times and then ……they can get further laughs just by going and standing at the same place on the stage. No joke needed.

Exactly the same mechanism at play as when you make your child giggle. So, what’s going on? In both cases an anchor is being set.


Anchor is just a word for an unconscious internal response to a trigger. Your nervous system has learnt to respond in this way and the more you expose yourself to the trigger, the stronger the response. So, the trigger for the child is the parent’s look on their face and their hands. For the audience it’s the comedian standing on that spot on the stage.

Knowing about anchors is not just useful for comedians and parents wanting to help their children into a positive state of mind. It’s also useful knowledge for ourselves when we want to understand why we sometimes spontaneously enter certain negative frames of mind. If we can replace the negative anchors with positive ones, we gain control over how we’re feeling.

Unfortunately, not all anchors are positive.

Accidental negative anchors

The examples above are both great examples of positive anchors, but what about accidental negative anchors?

Negative anchors , which are triggers that lead to negative feelings, are nearly always set by accident.

Sometimes there can be a one time learning event which means the anchor is set the very first time the trigger is experienced. Let me explain with an example.

My daughter loved reading and then one day she didn’t anymore, she came home from school and refused to read. Just putting a book in front of her led to her body language changing and her getting tense. It’s likely someone at school (could have been a teacher or another pupil) had inadvertently anchored negative feelings to being asked to read.

Now, I know the children work in pairs in the classroom. Let’s say my daughter stumbled with her reading and her partner made fun of her and she felt bad. It’s possible she at that point learnt to associate reading with those negative feelings. So, each time she’s asked to read she gets those feelings and doesn’t like it and so resists. And each time she feels that way it strengthens that negative association – the anchor gets stronger.

Now, does that mean that every negative comment, every bad feeling causes a problem? No, but it’s worth bearing in mind these associations can be developed.

All sorts of phobias and fears can be developed in this way and we may or not be aware of just when the negative anchor was accidentally set.

But it’s not all bad news, we can change things.

Our neurology can be changed

The good news is our neurology can be changed, we can teach our nervous system to respond in a different, more positive way. This is called collapsing the anchor.

In the case of my daughter’s reading, I’ll never know what actually happened to set the anchor, and I didn’t need to. We just worked on creating some nice new positive associations and then used those positive anchors to replace the negative ones.

Oh, and by the way, she now loves reading.