Category Archives: humor

Holistic Humor: Coping With Breast Cancer

About the Author

Kathryn Bouskill holds both a  BA and MA in Anthropology from Notre Dame and Emory respectively. She is currently  completing a Ph.D. in Anthropology and a M.P.H. in Epidemiology at Emory. She maintains an interest in the topic of breast cancer though her current focus has shifted from ethnographic research on coping mechanisms to the globalization of typically American breast cancer awareness campaigns and their social implications in new contexts, specifically in Austria.

The Author, Kathryn Bouskill
The Author, Kathryn Bouskill

The Big Idea

Kathryn Bouskill decided to take a slightly different look at humor and illness. Traditional interest centers around humor as therapy, the idea that laughter can be a form of medicine, and/or the physiological implications of humor. However, Bouskill preferred to explore how humor was utilized in order to cognitively augment a sociocultural reality through social connection and understanding among survivors. While the fear was an unavoidable constant, by focusing on the comedic aspects of the non-lethal aspects of breast cancer sufferers were able to regain a sense of control while navigating their new role. This presented as true across age, race, and SES.

Neuroanthropology:  Joining Humor and Coping

Discovering the presence of breast cancer is a polarizing moment. Life is almost immediately divided in two categories: life before cancer and life with cancer.  Once a lump is discovered the acceleration into the world of cancer is almost exponential. In an exceptionally short amount of time  a woman loses her health and, for many, most of  her defining feminine features. The experience is not only characterized by sickness but by loss of identity, both personal and social.  Any coping mechanism is defined as managing stressors by the cognitive consideration of the situation within the context of the individuals’ life, i.e. their sociocultural  context. Both humor and coping are rooted within such a context, as responding to humor requires social aptitude and understanding. Bouskill notes that humor is instinctual and is a topic that has lacked popularity through the evolutionary-adaptionist lens as it doesn’t have a necessarily affect fitness one way or another. In all actuality the study of  humor presents difficulty through almost any lens, the most glaringly obvious reason being that it is difficult to find in the lab setting.  Humor study has long been a key topic in enthnography as a means of both as a means of social bonding and deviance. Though there is still much to explore what is known it that it creates a discernible distance between an individual and their suffering.

Breast Cancer in the United States: Politics And Pink Ribbons

The U.S breast cancer awareness movement was prompted in response to the shocking stigmatization and victim-blaming that formerly characterized the disease. Breast cancer is now a common concept as noted by how commonplace it is to see anything and everything bedecked in pink ribbon. While these are great strides forward, the disease has also become feminized and all-encompassing. Most male sufferers are overlooked and the attitude towards the disease serves to further define the diagnosed as a cancer suffer before they are seen as anything else

“We Laughed for Hours!”

The interest in this topic was prompted when an inaugural breast cancer support group meeting had an unexpected affect on the participants. Rather than the tales of hardship and frustration, the organizer was met with three hours of laughter. Most of the ethnographic information was taken from the Midwestern support center that hosted that very meeting. Every participant said that they used humor, as defined by each of the survivors, to cope.

Transitioning to “Cancer World”

The transition to the cancer world is as literal as it is metaphoric. It means coming to grips with the realities of suffering from breast cancer, dealing with each and every physical and emotional facet. Survivors from the center and associated biomedical clinic formed deep connections to other sufferers and staff, often communicating outside of scheduled meetings. “Cancer World” becomes a social haven though it continues to be a physical hell. The solidarity is an earmark of their world.  The support center becomes a place where they are no longer required to be the valiant survivor, they can feel their feeling and express them any way they choose. Typically this turns out to be a form of humor that could be considered to the layperson to be morbid, but is simply an expression of their reality. Time also plays a role in the transition, as most sufferers will not be wise cracking about shaving their heads at their first chemotherapy appointment. It is a fluid process of acceptance.

Dealing with “Cancer World”

The psychological stress that accompanies the diagnosis of cancer arises in many forms.  Where does one turn to deal with such an outpouring of change and emotion? Having an outlet along with locale and label assist in modulating such stress responses. Social support leads to lower cortisol levels and overall better quality of life. Humor cultivates the social bonds that lead to these marked physiological and psychological changes. The participants noted that humor allowed them to take their minds off of the negative aspects of the disease, whereas dwelling and complaining only seemed to give is power over their minds in addition to their bodies

Language, Humor, and Meaning

Linguistically, humor alters meaning.  It allows people to joke about the serious as well as the inherently humorous. Within this support center is acted as a mode of changing the minds of those who suffered to a frame of mind that allowed them to accept and cope with their situation. Humor does not remove their stress but it does serve to lessen their anxiety. Though metaphor and idiomatic reference, their orient themselves within their own world as well as the one outside.

Recess and Reward: The Positive  Effects of Humor

Physiologically humor does actually provide physical advantages.  If is looked at as a reward then is can be linked to the  mesolimbic  dipaminergic reward system . It also activates the medial ventral prefrontal cortex,  as seen through fMRI data. Women are seen to experience  greater reward response from the language processing centers than their male counterparts. Additionally coping via humor seems to lower the systolic blood pressure in women. Humor, however, is too complex to be looked at in a purely neurological manner. Activation of neural reward centers is dependent upon social interactions and context. It cannot simply be chalked up to neural reward, as that explanation is far to simplistic.


Humor allows breast cancer suffers a cognitive coping mechanism in three ways: 1.  It is a form of optimism that forces acceptance but also allows mental distance from stress 2. Allows a fluid transition to coping and finally 3. It taps into the human suite of traits that allow for stress relief and social group bonding through its instigation and laughter response.

All three of the above reasons are also challenges to how breast cancer and coping was previously assumed to be understood.

The Neuroanthropology of You & Me (aka, Us)

To get us started on this blog thing, I want to give everyone a short practice assignment that will give you the opportunity to play with the bells & whistles of WordPress & for us all to get to know a little bit more about each other.

This assignment is due by midnight this coming Tuesday. That way we’ll have the time to read about each other before our next class. By the way, when you start seeing everyone else’s posts, be sure to subscribe to them, so you get our witticisms delivered post haste directly to your inbox.

I want you to put a little effort into this assignment but not a lot. It should take you longer than 15 minutes but not more than a few hours, depending on how define “little effort.” You’ll see what I mean below.

Here’s the assignment:

By Rob Mieremet (ANEFO) (Ga het na (Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rob Mieremet (ANEFO) (Ga het na (Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Remember Tinbergen’s 4 “Why” questions I mentioned in class? Niko Tinbergen was a Nobel Prize-winning biologist who made immense contributions to the field of “ethology” or behavioral science. Ethology is the observation of behaviors “in nature,” as it were. Specifically, animals don’t do much talking, so the best we can really do to understand their behavior is to sit & watch them. A lot. For a long time. Zoo animals are all fucked up & high on psychopharmaceuticals (which makes them actually pretty good analogs for a lot of us, though maybe better analogs for minimum security prisoners–think of them the inmates from Orange is the New Black, which, according to my father-in-law, who used to run the commissary in a minimum security prison in New York, is actually a pretty accurate representation), so understanding evolved behaviors is best done in a natural environment. You can do this with humans too, but it’s called being a creepy stalker. I assign students the task of being creepy stalkers in some of my classes, & it’s quite fun.

The last time I was at the Memphis Zoo, this guy was on Prozac to deal with the anxiety around females resulting from developmental isolation. "Contemplating" by Frank. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The last time I was at the Memphis Zoo, this guy was on Prozac to deal with the anxiety around females resulting from developmental isolation. “Contemplating” by Frank. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Anyway, Tinbergen recognized that there are four different biological explanation for any behavior or four different answers for “why” an organism does something.

  1. Historical (evolutionary or phylogenetic): The ancestors of the organism did that, which it inherited.
  2. Proximal (cause/effect): An outside cause triggers that behavior.
  3. Developmental (ontogenetic): It is a developmentally appropriate thing to do at the age of the organism.
  4. Functional (physiological): There are internal biological “mechanisms” or the evolved capacity to do the behavior.

I want you to apply the 4 why questions to a hobby you have or something you do besides this school thing that you’re proud of & is reflective of the inner you AND to tell us about the cultural basis of the hobby. It can be current or past, but it should be something that gives us some insight into your personality. Oh, & post a photo of yourself that’s better (or at least different) than the one I already. In fact, post a photo of you doing the thing you’re proud of.

Photo from the early days at The Beat in Port Chester, NY. Taken by my friend Randy.
Photo from the early days at The Beat in Port Chester, NY. Taken by my friend Randy.

I’ll tell you about me to give you an idea of what I’m looking for. I used to play in bands. I actually worked in music distribution, so it wasn’t so much my hobby as my life. But I got a little turned around in my early 20s because it was supposed to have been a hobby. I got really into music during my first stint in college (I was a college dropout & came back later to anthropology & grad school & all that), moved to NYC, went to school for audio engineering & recording because I didn’t know how else to get more involved in music, & sort of fell into working in record stores & playing in a band. My best friend from high school had moved to NYC & suggested we start a band. I owned a bass that I could barely play, he owned a microphone, & he knew guys who plucked at a guitar & a guy who played jazz drums. So that’s how we started realizing this dream.

Here I am again in my next band, wearing sunglasses at night, the epitome of trying to look cool. They also served the dual purpose of masking the fact that I had to watch my fingers much of the time while I was singing instead of making eye contact with the audience.
Here I am again in my next band, wearing sunglasses at night, the epitome of trying to look cool. They also served the dual purpose of masking the fact that I had to watch my fingers much of the time while I was singing instead of making eye contact with the audience.

I played in garage punk bands, which is a very specific little subculture, with its own fanzines, radio stations, clubs, & look. It’s a very Euro-American cultural development, though there are a lot of Japanese garage punk bands & a few from here & there around the world, but mostly the developed world. I worked in the music industry, wrote for fanzines, collected records, ad nauseum, so it was a fully immersed cultural experience that still resonates with me in interesting ways. I have more or less maintained myself within that cultural model ever since. The tattoos (even the style of the tattoos), the handlebar mustache, the earrings, the grease in my hair–all parts of my style today I would associate with a garage-punk subculture. I still have a physiological response to music that I like, to playing music (one of my bands reunited a few years ago, so I got to relive the thrill), & prefer talking to people from that walk of life. I still listen to the same style of music in my office when I’m composing lectures & collect it (I used to be a vinyl collector but stick with mp3s now). I “come alive” when I’m talking that talk. I can’t say I exactly understand the nature of the feeling, but it’s definitely something different than the ordinary & it’s definitely biologically based. Let me see if I can break it down a little.

Phylogenetically: Well, comparatively speaking, none of our closest living relatives shows signs of playing in garage-punk bands, so we have to step back & think about preadaptations. We see plenty of evidence, especially in birds, of music playing a significant role in communication & genetic signaling. Birds use songs (both the style & pitch) to communicate relevant information about territoriality & such. A little phylogenetically closer, pair-bonded gibbons duet together. Mother’s universally talk to babies in sing-songy voices Dean Falk has referred to as “motherese.”

And playing in a band deserves parsing out, because the music is only part of it. The performance is important too. I’d say I loved practicing with my band most because the social synchronization was almost palpable. To be attuned to other people & able to nonverbally follow their precision behaviors is a powerful thing. By that I mean that, when the drummer slowed down his beat, I (as bass player) could follow along & slow down too (sometimes–other times I honestly might’ve been too drunk to notice). So, yeah, we also did a lot of…other things together, things that induce altered states of consciousness (if you know what I mean) that have been found to break down cognitive boundaries & enable people to take perspectives normal consciousness does not otherwise afford. Sharing novel alterations of consciousness can really bond people, & I have never gotten as close to anyone besides my wife & kids as I did to the 3 guys in my first band & our extended family. Phylogenetically, all social species have intensive experiences that bond them together & lead to trust. Intense experiences with non-kin create bonds that are like those you have with close kin, which have developed because they have seen you in vulnerable states & continue to associate with you, forgive you for them, like you better for them, have shown you their vulnerability, etc.

Finally, being in a band signals something potentially genetic. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests the arts signal an ability to be cognitively flexible, to rise to unique occasions & creatively overcome adversity. This is an attractive feature in a mate that likely has a genetic basis, at least in part. Being in a band may also demonstrate a willingness to put oneself out there. I know that I felt there was a dynamic, exuberant person inside me that most people didn’t see & that I wanted to be able to show. So, onstage, I dressed like a jackass, screamed into the mic (like a jackass), & jumped around (like a jackass). Sometimes I also carried a tune. It was so much fun. And it was so validating when people would say, “you’re like a totally different person up there–it’s rather bizarre to see” because that’s the side that completed me. I knew myself to be what I am every day & that person. Frankly, it is what I miss most about being in a band, though I tend to prowl a classroom somewhat like I am in a garage band again.

My wife took this photo, I believe, the night I met her. I was trying to look cool to impress her. Fooled her, didn't I?
My wife took this photo, I believe, the night I met her. I was trying to look cool to impress her. Fooled her, didn’t I?

Proximally: This one is much simpler. Being in a band is cool. I wanted to be cool, so I learned to be in a band. I didn’t learn to play music–I learned to be in a band. I can’t read music. I can’t really pick out tunes. I can write tunes but only on the bass. I couldn’t tell you how to play them. If you can play guitar or something, you can follow along with the songs I invent. My guitar player or drummer would write whole songs, meaning all the parts, & teach me mine. I would write bass parts & lyrics & let the guitar player & drummer come up with their own parts. So I don’t consider myself a musician. I couldn’t “jam” with you. I can only play the songs I learned to play for my bands. But I can manage a band. I can book practice. I can book a tour. I can get a record deal & put together a record. Between the two bands that released recordings, I think I have 5 albums out & one on the way. One whole unreleased album is still sitting in the can. And we put out a whole buncha 7″s & comp tracks. So I know the mechanisms of being in a band, but I’m not a musician; & I learned it because people thought it was cool & I wanted to be cool. Ironically, figuring all that out & being relatively successful at it is what gave me the confidence to go back to school, get a PhD, & become a professor.

This, in my opinion, was our masterpiece (if you could call it that). I'm very proud of it.
This, in my opinion, was our masterpiece (if you could call it that). I’m very proud of it.

Developmental: Wanting to be cool is a developmental stage. Preening for female attention is a developmental stage. It worked. I met my wife by being in my band. She was dating the guy who put our records out, & he hosted a showcase for his bands. Fortunately, he was a forgiving kind of guy & they were only casually dating. Anyway, at a certain point, external validation meant a lot toward my developing ego. Then, as I established myself in life (wife/kids) & career, it has come to mean less. Biologically, we know that the increase in testosterone production in males around puberty propels that desire for external validation, particularly from those who interest us sexually. We also know that having kids & getting older influences a decline in testosterone & increase in oxytocin & vasopressin & things that make us less motivated by ambition & more motivated to bond & nurture. Now, I put my energy & other resources into helping my kids ready themselves for preening. I just picked up a stand-up bass for one of my sons, who has signed up for strings in middle school. I am so excited!

My son, Bailey, & his new bass. I am so excited for him & his brothers, who are taking on alto sax & trumpet.
My son, Bailey, & his new bass. I am so excited for him & his brothers, who are taking on alto sax & trumpet.

Functionally: As humans, we are uniquely capable of the physiological coordination I mentioned earlier, not just to synchronize ourselves musically with conspecifics, but with ourselves. We have the hand-eye-vocal coordination to push down certain strings with one hand, strum a rhythm with another, sing, & jump around. This is not easy to do, & we have to be wired with that capacity. For instance, we cannot move all our toes independent of each other like we can our fingers because our toes are neurologically wired together (go ahead, try to move your second toes without the others moving–can’t do it, can you?). Your pinky is somewhat wired with your ring finger, but other apes don’t have that much dexterity in their hands. We have exquisite fine motor skills in our hands because of a density of neural tissue in the brain dedicated to that digital independence & sensitivity. If you look at the sensorimotor regions of the brain, you can see that the regions in our brains dedicated to those regions are relatively large.

Furthermore, we have a more dynamic vocal range than many other species, &, of course, language gives us special capacities in this regard not shared by any other species. I don’t think the jumping around like a jackass is particularly special, but it is pretty cool when it happens on the beat. If you want to see the quintessence of this, watch this footage of James Brown from the 1960s on the T.A.M.I. show.

Remember I talked about people with God & the Devil battling in them? This is what it looks when it’s been synchronized & outfitted in some badass threads.

Now it’s your turn. If you’ve never done a blog post, do a separate blog post. If you’ve done a blog post before, you can do yours as a comment below mine, unless it doesn’t let you post photos. Sometimes comments don’t allow photos easily. Have fun & email me with any questions.