Mr Flibble Talks To... Flibble Goes To The Doctor
Research has shown that watching Red Dwarf can actually improve the body's ability to defend itself against viruses. The man responsible for this discovery is Wolverhampton University's Dr Shantha Perera. Mr Flibble stopped in for a check-up...
20 November, 2000
Dr Shantha Perera
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble covered his mouth and checked his inoculation certificate before asking: What made you decide to look at this, rather unusual, area of RESEARCH in 1998?

I'd always been interested in the connection between the mind and the immune system, but it's not a very fashionable area, it's not mainstream immunology. But there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that things like stress make you ill, that it can have a detrimental effect on the immune system.

And also there are some reports that relaxation - the opposite of stress, basically - can do the opposite and give the system a boost. We really wanted to do this in a more scientific way, and really look at the different effects of the different types of psychological interventions on immunity.

The aim is to boost the immune system, that's what we're trying to do; trying to see how we can get the immune system operating efficiently.

What made you pick RED DWARF for the study - apart from its handsome leading penguin?

We wanted to make people laugh, we wanted to get them into a room and show them something that they're guaranteed to find funny. Because people have different tastes when it comes to comedy, we drew up a list of ten comedies - videos people were watching, or that were appearing on television at the time - and we asked people to rate what was the funniest, and Red Dwarf came out on top. Most people picked Red Dwarf from that list of ten videos as being the funniest video out of that list.

How many episodes were shown?

Just the one. It was just the one session because we wanted to see the effect of, say, twenty minutes exposure to comedy on the immune system. We took some samples before, and they all watched the video, and we took some samples afterwards. So it was just the one session.

At this point Mr Flibble sneezed. He elected to perform the rest of the interview through a glass door. Andrew shouted his next question to Dr Perera: What was the routine for THE STUDY?

The students turned up on the day and we asked them to fill in a general health questionnaire - we were using saliva to measure for this antibody called IgA and we wanted to make sure we excluded anybody who had gingivitis or any kind of respiratory tract infection - so we asked them to fill out a health questionnaire just to make sure everybody was okay, and then they gave us a sample of saliva over five minutes.

They basically drool into a tube - not very dignified, but you know. (Laughs) They drool into a tube for five minutes, the tubes go on ice, the students sit there and watch the film, we take another sample afterwards, and then they go off. About a month later they came back and we asked them to watch a documentary this time - The Life of [psychologist] Hans Eysenck. It wasn't remotely funny apparently. (Laughs) We took samples before and after that session again.

We then looked at the levels of IgA in the saliva samples, in the 'before' samples and the 'after' samples. We found that when they watched the documentary, the IgA levels went down significantly, suggesting that maybe boredom was making them stressed, if you like - and that was having a negative effect on immunity.

Whereas when they watched Red Dwarf it really shot up! The levels of the antibodies went up. The conclusion is that Red Dwarf - watching the comedy - caused the rise, because obviously with the Control group, watching the Eysenck documentary there wasn't a rise, there was a downward shift.

So you would RECOMMEND Red Dwarf as an aid to health?

I think, yeah, if people find it funny, then watching it might be useful. But obviously we need to do further work with larger numbers to be certain that the effect is something that happens all the time. But these kind of results suggest that exposure to comedy could be good if people are stressed and if the immune system needs a boost. And if they like Red Dwarf, then obviously Red Dwarf is the one to go for.

How many students were involved in the initial study?

When we gave them the questionnaire deciding on the videos, we used, I think, 93 people, and most of them said that Red Dwarf was the one they picked as being the funniest out of the list. But for the actual study, we used sixteen students. So it was a fairly small sample, but it was published in the International Journal of Behavioural Medicine. So it's all been peer reviewed and everything.

Andrew asked: So where does the study go from here? (Mr Flibble had run off to get inoculation jabs...)

What we want to do is take a look at patients who have defects in their immune system - and subject them to humour and see if that changes any of the parameters. That would be quite useful, especially for people who have immune deficiency diseases - if their immune system is not functioning optimally - to see if watching something like comedy would give them a boost.

That's what I would like to do. A bigger study, with different types of comedy as well. Also we can find out in more detail, perhaps, why they thought one particular type of comedy was better for them; that sort of in-depth study. So we are looking for sponsors - obviously with research these days you need to get funding.

What are the practical APPLICATIONS of this research?

Well I think people these days are a lot more prone to stress-related illnesses. There's a lot of respiratory infections going around as well, especially in the winter, things like flu epidemics and so on. So I think that if we can prove that a simple, inexpensive activity like watching comedy is actually going to prevent people from getting cold and flu, then that should be encouraged.

Patients being prescribed half an hour of Ben Elton...

Well, why not! (Laughs) I mean people always say that when you're stressed you're more prone to illnesses, and when you're happy and relaxed then you're less prone to it. What we need is more scientific studies that look at this using the appropriate controls and so on.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Dr Perera, and now that it's over...Mr Flibble is very cross.