Laughter is an inherent part of our day to day lives, and it’s hard to imagine most situations without it. Whether it’s a movie, a joke, or perhaps someone’s misfortune – we all do it. However, once we begin to stop hearing laughter as just background noise and focus on it as a behaviour, it becomes much more complex.
Robert Provine, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, states that the majority of the time, we don’t laugh in response to jokes. Instead, laughter is a form of encouragement to make others feel more positive, or to ease a tense situation. After studying the laughter behaviours of 1,200 people, Provine discovered that only 10-20% of laughter was due to a joke. The remaining laughter he put down to mundane conversations such as “I’ll see you later”. Furthermore some researchers have split laughter up into two categories, spontaneous or nonspontaneous. The latter, comprising nervous laughter, fake laughter and social laughter.
So why did we start laughing in the first place? Provine states that a type of laughter dissociated from humour actually arose first. This can be visualised in the panting of our primate ancestors in response to play, and tickling in other animals. Then, when early humans arose, it is believed they carried on these laughing behaviours. Similarly, the laughter used by early humans was not associated with jokes. Rather, it is easy to imagine an early human using laughter as a vocal signal to tell the rest of a group to relax, or to chuckle at their own victory in collecting food.
These ideas of laughter stem from very early theories regarding the basis of laughter. One of these theories is the theory of superiority. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) noted that laughter is a ‘sudden glory’ that we feel at the expense of others misfortunes, which makes us more superior. Another theory is the relief theory that was brought into prominence by Freud. This theory states that laughter is a mechanism in which psychological tension is reduced, perhaps in nervous or awkward situations. A final theory that is highly regarded is the incongruity theory, which is centred on the idea of laughing at something that is out of place, or something that goes against our expectations.
According to psychologists, laughter is not something that we learn. Around six months old a baby will laugh for the first time. Charles Gruner, the author of The Game of Humour, explains what causes this. When a mother startles her baby, the baby will feel one of two things: the first is danger, and the second is that it’s his or her mother. The response of the baby is a half cry, which comes out as a laugh. This laughter predates any humour that could be produced for example, by a joke. A study that has attempted to prove the instinctive nature of laughter was undertaken in a team led by Disa Sauter from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. Disa and her colleagues tested eight deaf and eight hearing individuals and asked them to vocalise a series of emotions including fear, anger, triumph, relief and sadness. The recordings of the people were then played back to a panel of hearing individuals who were required to match each of sounds to an emotion. The results were surprising. For the deaf individuals, the only two distinguishable sounds that were made were laughter and sighs of relief. On the other hand, the sounds made my hearing individuals were much more distinct. These findings suggest that laughter is a trait we are born with, and that other emotional vocalisations have been developed through experience. First we laugh, then we learn what to laugh at.
Furthermore, perhaps because laughter is so instinctive, it is not easily controlled. Provine believes that there is an untamed nature to laughter that is less easily controlled than speech. Sometimes, we have no choice but to laugh, analogous to a reflex mechanism such as moving your hand away from a flame.
Similarly, laughter is also contagious. A bizarre and unexplained laughter epidemic was noted in 1962, in Tanzania, when three school girls began laughing in class until the whole classroom was laughing. Schools were closed, and laughing continued for days, even spreading to nearby villages. Other unprecedented events have also been documented.
So, are there any benefits to laughing? Some researchers have claimed that laughing can have direct benefits such as increasing life expectancy, and lowering blood pressure. It is also now possible to hire a laughter therapist, allowing people to re-learn the joys of laughter. Provine is less convinced, and is sceptical about apparent health benefits. He asks “do you really need a prescription” to laugh? Something that can be agreed upon however, is a happier quality of life.