No laughing matter: Why do we laugh?

What happens when a cow jumps over a barbed wire fence??

Udder Destruction

(Ba Dum Tish)

Ok, that’s a lame pun, but it puts a smile on my face everytime I hear/read it.

But why do we laugh at jokes?

The simple answer is of course: Because jokes are funny. But that seems like a bit of a superficial answer.

Think about it – laughter, or making people laugh, is a multi-billion dollar industry that sitcoms, comedians and Hollywood producers depend on. They all invest a lot of money and time into finding out what makes us go ha ha ha ha.

…or Ho-Ho-Ho/Hee-hee-hee for that matter.

(Sidenote: The sonic structure of laughter has actually been studied! Robert Provine, chief laughter-researcher, although that is not his actual title, has found out that ha-ha-ha/hee-hee-hee/ho-ho-ho are universal sounds of laughter and people tend to choose one or the other, and there’s never a mix of the two types of sounds of laughter. There ya go!)

But anyways, why do our brains decide to laugh? And more importantly, if it’s my personal instinct or choice that something is funny, why do other people find it funny too?

Let’s find out.

The question of why we laugh is clearly related to two different concepts: Humour and Laughter. But are they the same?

Let’s look at laughter first.

The average adult laughs about 17 times a day. I am not quite sure what counts as laughing in this statistic, whether it’s mere chuckling or only laugh out loud hearty belly laughter. If only LOLing is counted, then my personal laughter count is 0 for today, which either means that giggling is included, or that I’m a very sad person. I vote for the former.

Laughter normally has two features: Sound and Gestures. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines laughing as a reflex that is involuntary, expiratory and vocalized. We need fifteen facial muscles to laugh and although laughing feels so good, it does seems to put our bodies through some stress. Our respiratory system doesn’t know what’s happening, because our epiglottis is vibrating and half-closes the larynx (don’t ask me where any of these things are, but larynx sounds like laryngitis, so it should be somewhere near your voice box). Anyway, all this epiglotting and larynxing makes it hard for us to breathe or speak. The lack of oxygen makes our faces swell and turn red and activates our tear ducts. Laughing also induces muscle contractions in our body, especially within our diaphragms and backs which is why so many people complain that their stomachs hurt from laughing too hard (Brain, 2013). Many people also tend to slap their knees or hold their stomachs while laughing.

I would just like to add at this point, and you may call this another sidenote, that I think the expression “ROFL” is ridiculous and that people should seriously consider eliminating it from their vocabularies. Have you ever actually seen someone so amused they threw themselves on the floor and then rolled around whilst laughing like a lunatic?!

Carry on.

Anyways, apart from contorting and rolling on the floor, crying and slapping our knees (you can’t spell slaughter without laughter – BA DUM TISH), laughing also has some pretty cool effects on our bodies. Research by Dr. Lee Berk in the 1980s suggest that laughing is indeed the best, or at least a type of medicine. Laughing (or anticipating laughter) seems to do the following:

  • Increases Beta-endorphin levels by 27% (good)
  • Increases Human growth hormone levels by 87% (don’t laugh if you’re tall…Ha ha)
  • Decreases Cortisol levels by 39% (this is a stress hormone…decreasing it is good!)
  • Decreases Epinephrine levels by 70% (Adrenaline!!)
  • Decreases Dopac levels by 38% (helps to produce adrenaline)

So, what does all this information tell us? In a nutshell, laughing reduces stress and, as most of us know, seems to release endorphins which are frequently linked to feelings of happiness and excitement. So, although we can’t breathe, turn lobster-red and get cramps, laughing seems to have a positive effect on our bodies and our well-being.

More studies have shown that regions in the brain which are involved in emotion, cognition and vision respond to laughter. For example, the midbrain and hypothalamus that release dopamine (a hormone that controls pleasure) are stimulated by laughter. Moreover, laughter seems to help to decrease blood pressure and support the immune system, in addition to relieving stress (Rogers, 2008).

Other research has also shown that so-called pathological laughter which people affected by multiple sclerosis, epilepsy or seizures sometimes display, often occurs together with crying, without the stimulus of sad or happy events, leading scientists to the assumption that laughing and crying are closely linked in the brain and perhaps both affected by dopamine (Rogers, 2008).

And since we’re on the topic, let’s consult our good old brains. What’s actually going on in there?

The areas of our brains that are linked to laughing are in the subcortex, the “ancient” part of our brain that does all the stuff that we could do from day 1 (like breathing, basic reflexes and shizzle), as well as the lymbic system that controls our emotions. So that means that theoretically, judging from where laughing is located in the brain, the ability to laugh was probably there before we developed language. Moreover, laughing is universal. everybody has the ability to laugh, and perhaps even uncontrollable. Even deaf people who have never hears any sounds before (Stafford, 2012).

So we know everyone CAN laugh but we still don’t know WHY.

Well, this is where the Gelotologists come in! Never heard of them before? These are the people that research laughter/humour and its evolution. One of the big questions, if not THE biggest question, they are dealing with is to find out whether laughing is innate or learned.

Philosopher John Morreall thinks that the first human laughter may have started as a shared relief at the passing of danger. Since laughter is able to relax humans and reduce the hormones which are emitted during fight-or-flight responses, laughter may indicate trust in fellow companions. So, laughing in the early days was kind of like saying “Everything’s fine. No sable-toothed tigers around here to eat you up. Trust me!”

Robert Provine studied over 2 000 cases of natural laughter over ten years. He believes that laughing, or recognizing humour, is involuntary, instinctive behaviour. He argues that laughing is not really about humour, but that it is a tool for social vocalization that is rooted in our genes. He also suggests that people have a “detector” that responds to laughter, making laughter contagious. He found through research in social settings that laughing often doesn’t really depend on the joke, but more on the person who is joking. He assumes that laughter evolved from panting behaviour of our ancestors who made, or used, these sounds during play time to signal trust and/or pleasure.

“When we laugh, we’re often communicating playful intent. So laughter has a bonding function within individuals in a group. It’s often positive, but it can be negative too. There’s a difference between “laughing with” and “laughing at.” People who laugh at others may be trying to force them to conform or casting them out of the group.” (Provine, 1999).

There are some things that may indicate that laughing is innate. Think about babies, they ROFL all the time. They even laugh before they speak. And, let’s face it, they probably are not laughing about your awesome jokes. Maybe they are just responding to facial expressions or certain tones, but maybe they respond to an innate need to show you they share a bond with you by smiling and laughing.

I suddenly remember random scenes from my first year at university when sentences like “Duuudee….I was wasted last night!!” and “I started this essay 5 minutes ago and need to hand it in in half an hour!!” would bring about hysterical bouts of laughter – not really that funny though, is it?!

But other scientists believe that laughing lies somewhere in between learned behaviour and innate reflex, and is indeed related to humour. Many researchers believe that what is innate about having a sense of humour is being able to recognize certain patterns that allow us “understand” why things are funny (Rogers, 2008).

So, while laughter is the physiological reaction to that, or in other words the uuhhh-I-geddit-moment. There’s been many studies to suggest why we find things humours, or what is at the root of our humour:

  • Incongruity: Jokes or comedic tales are all set in certain “play frames” which put real-life events in non-serious context. Secondly, jokes need some sort of incongruity, or in other words the “punch line”. These are essential to jokes because they normally reveal a twist or an event that is unexpected (Keith, 2008). Thomas Veatch also suggests that jokes become funny when the end, or outcome, of the joke is in opposition to what we expect.
    There are many classic jokes that are good examples for this, but I think these exam answers by kids are also great examples of incongruity: 
  • Superiority: We laugh at some one else’s misfortunes or stupidity because we feel superior to them: http://www.buzzfeed.com/daves4/people-who-are-having-a-worse-day-than-you
  • Relief: Hollywood has been using this forever and this type of comedy is used in most major films. Filmmakers build up tension, making viewers anxious or nervous about the fate of characters. Just before situations become unbearably tense, they break up the tension with a funny side comment that allow viewers to relieve their feelings of nervousness: 

Moreover, another experiment by Robert Lynch suggests that people think it’s funny….coz it’s true! Or in other words, that people laugh because they recognize certain situations described in jokes.

“If implicit preferences affect our response to humor, then laughter may serve as a signal that we share the joke teller’s beliefs, biases, or preferences,”says Lynch (2009).

Similarly to Provine, Lynch suggests that laughter signals to others that we share a bond with them, i.e. the same upbringing, background, issues, values and beliefs. This makes it easier for us to share information and trust other people.

In other words, humour is subjective, it depends on whether or not we can connect to what the content of certain jokes is and whether we can relate. But, similarly to most things that we relate to, we share values and opinions with other people, meaning we share a sense of humour with others. The jokes of Jon Stewart, for example, may be funniest to those who share the same political beliefs.

To wrap things up, we can take one thing away from this:

“Humour is an evoked response to storytelling and shifting expectations. Laughter is a social signal among humans, “(Marci, 2012). Amen.

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