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Is it brain confusion or schadenfreude?

Joyce Walter writes about an unsympathetic response
Reflective Moments by Joyce Walter

A school friend was notoriously prone to accidents, such as while wearing rubber boots to walk over ice and snow.

When she inevitably fell down, a second friend laughed out loud and had trouble getting her mirth under control.

This was not an isolated incident of laughter. Similar laughter was expected from her in all cases such as the one involving rubber boots on ice or when a toboggan was steered into a pole and riders experienced pain as a result.

Eventually, we all laughed with her, this laughter being contagious and not meant in a hurtful manner.

These scenes came back to me the other day as a friend of my mature years texted her laughter at me while I was suffering from a blockage of the throat by a large pill taken to help keep my legs free from pain.

Swallowing what are often referred to as “horse pills” because of their size has been a growing problem for me and on this particular day, the mouthful of water did not flush it down properly and problems ensued. Housemate offered to perform his version of the Heimlich manoeuvre but I declined because I was still able to speak and breathe and I suspected some rib crush or other damage might result from his well-meant gesture.

After gagging and burping and being otherwise unmannerly, the pill was still there, blocking all attempts to push it down or bring it up. So off we travelled to the hospital where with embarrassment I explained what had happened. No one laughed at my circumstance, for which I was grateful.

While waiting for the prescribed Ginger Ale and dry food to work, I killed time by texting my mature friend, telling her of my condition, the gagging, the burping, the pain — expecting some sympathy, or at least one of those unhappy-faced emoji symbols.

Instead I got digital laughter and the comment: “I just had a mental picture. I shouldn’t laugh but can’t help it…Lol.”

Later that evening, after I had eaten a meal of slippery Kraft Dinner, she texted to ask about my condition, then ruined the moment by telling me she had to quit laughing because she got a headache. Poor thing. 

If I had laughed at her headache, it would have given me “schadenfreude” — a feeling of joy some people get while seeing the pain or misfortune of others. 

Another source I studied about this situation came up with the diagnosis of “brain confusion” to describe why laughter is involved with others’ pain, perhaps subscribing to the old saying of “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

And a third explanation is that laughter is a natural painkiller. I don’t understand how her laughter could have cured the pain in my throat. Instead, I will credit the doctor for helping me get rid of my throat obstruction.

Will I forgive the laughter at my expense? Perhaps. Right now my brain is confused and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And thank you for asking — my throat is still tender. The horse pills have been set aside for now and so far there is no pain in the leg or elsewhere.
Joyce Walter can be reached at

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