The benefits of humor are obvious at the Gateway Café, a project of the University of Rhode Island for adults with traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The Gateway has an open-door policy for people with head injuries, who are invited to spend time and connect socially with others in the same situation. “People with TBI typically lose about 90 percent of their friends in the year after the TBI,” says Professor of Communicative Disorders Dana Kovarsky, who co-founded the program and runs it with the help of other faculty members and graduate students in the department. TBI patients become isolated because their disabilities often keep them from activities they enjoyed with their friends. The problem is compounded if they have trouble speaking.

By Mary Desmond Pinkowish | Ode Magazine | August 2009 issue
Kovarsky is assessing how brain-injured people use laughter to connect with others. He found that laughter promotes both positive and negative public self-image, or “face.” Both types of face are important—and not just to people with TBI. Positive face is a measure of a person’s desire to be accepted by others; negative face is a measure of a person’s desire to be accepted on one’s own terms. “Both are important for people with brain injuries,” Kovarsky says. “And laughter builds both types of face, or public self-image” through the way it facilitates engagement. People with brain injuries want to be seen as equal to others and be as independent as possible.

This is demonstrated by teasing that goes on in these sessions. The patients with TBI in Kovarsky’s program are predominantly male, and many of the graduate students are female. As in any social situation involving men and women, teasing is common. For people with TBI, a willingness to tease and be teased is a sign that they want to be treated like anyone else. The joking, flirting and teasing triggers laughter, and laughter “promotes solidarity and face-building,” says Kovarsky.