Page 14                                             Winter 1987-88

The Power of Laughter and Play


by Orrel Lanter

Doctor O. Carl Simonton, pioneer in the field of stress and cancer research, hastily opens an umbrella, dons a football helmet and braces himself... Wave after wave of marshmallows bombard the stage as he faces an audience of 1,000 people unwilling to stop their hilarious assault.


Simonton is the final speaker in a line­up of well-known names - anthropologist Ashley Montagu, comedian Michael Pritchard and editor Norman Cousins (on film). The Institute for the Advancement of Human Behaviors' . 'Power of Laughter and Play" conference in San Francisco is the latest in a semi-annual series of such seminars over the past six years.


For three days medical professionals from around the globe are here to challenge the mores of traditional medical treatment in managing and preventing disease. They are learning how to de-stress their own lives with humor.


Simonton began on a very serious note, speaking of his own speciality - the importance of imagery in the treatment of cancer. "Studies implemented in the past five years are finding how strongly emotions influence health," he said.


It was the remarkable recovery of former Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins that sparked renewed interest in the medical community in the emotional side of health. Cousins wrote "Anatomy of an Illness" in 1979 to chronicle his use of laughter as a weapon in overcoming a terminal illness.


Simonton began research with cancer patients in his Pacific Palisades, Calif., clinic. He directs patients to shift their focus in order to loosen the tenacious grip of pain and fear that cancer creates. "Laughter and play break up hopelessness," Simonton declares.


Learning to juggle was a personal insight for him as well. "I spent 35 years learning that I couldn't juggle," he recalls. "Only to have a pediatrician friend teach me in 15 minutes one day that I could."


He then told the thousand people in the audience that it was time they, too, learned to juggle. He innocently passed out marshmallows and asked people to toss them up and catch them. Self-consciously at first, they began throwing the white puffs gingerly from hand to hand. As they gained confidence and relaxed, the horse­play began.


Someone was hit with a maliciously tossed marshmallow. Someone laughed at that. Retaliation ensued and quickly escalated. The room looked like the inside of a popcorn popper, with marshmallows launched from every corner. Simonton on the stage was an obvious and frequent target.


For 20 minutes it was." Animal House."  When calm finally returned, Simonton closed his lumpy umbrella and said, "Occasionally our inner voice of health takes a bizarre turn. This amazing display is an excellent example!"


Besides workshops, the conference hires clowns, mimes and face painters to create an atmosphere of playfulness that invites people to unwind. One such entertainer was Dr. Barry Berkowitz, a former  Berkeley, Calif., emergency room physician, who roamed the conference wearing a white lab coat and juggling a hypodermic syringe, bed pan and stethoscope. All the while he tossed out one-liners from routines he uses in his anti-stress seminar called "Juggling is Good Medicine."


Berkowitz began teaching juggling as a way to alleviate stress two years ago after finding that the high tensions of the emergency room were becoming detrimental to his own peace of mind. "Juggling is a metaphor for letting go of the weight of problems we place upon ourselves," Berkowitz says. "I developed a juggling workshop for medical professionals and corporations aimed at reducing those tensions. "


People crowded around him while Berkowitz continued his "Incredible Medical Juggle. "As a doctor and a juggler I'm always battling against inevitable forces ­death and gravity," he said, flashing a grin. "Only now, if I make a mistake you can boo me, but you can't sue me!" The audience groaned good-naturedly, obviously delighted to be getting personal instruction from the affable Berkowitz.

Simonton, Allen and Berkowitz

Juggling doctors (l-r) Simonton, Allen and Berkowitz (Michael Taradash photo)

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