The Mystery of Laughter

Mystery of laughter is more complicated and more bizare then you think. Unlike learning to speak English, French, or German, we don't have to learn to laugh. We are born with this capacity.

Although we hear laughter every day, the fact that it is common doesn't make it nay less strange. If you start noticing the the weird laughter noises around us, such as snorting, gasping and grunting, you will realize how bizarre laughter really is.

If we look at laughter as behavior, the question arises - why do we laugh? The obvious answer of course is because we heard or saw something funny. However, this obvious answer does not fit most of the time.

Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland. Baltimore County, says,"Most laughter is not a response to jokes or humor."

He has conducted extensive research and studies of laughter and is the author of the book 'Laughter a Scientific Investigation.' One of his central arguments is that humor and laughter are not inseparable.

He and some graduate students did a survey listening in on average conversations in public places. In their survey of 1200 laugh episodes, he found that only 10% - 20% were generated by something resembling a joke.

Remarkably, 80% - 90% of comments that resulted in a laugh were dull expressions like, "I'll see you guys later," "It was nice meeting you." Why laughter was associated with these expressions is puzzling.

Provine says that it has to do with the evolutionary development of laughter. With humans, laughter predated speech by perhaps millions of years. Before our ancestors could talk with each other, laughter was a simpler method of communication.

Laughter is also instinctual. Babies start laughing shortly after birth. Even people who are born deaf and blind still laugh. This proves that laughter is not a learned behavior, and that we are hardwired for laughter.

"Laughter is not under out conscious control," says Robert Provine. "We don't choose to laugh in the same way that we choose to speak."

If you had a 'laughing fit' - in school, at a play, in company with total strangers, even at a funeral, you will know that we can't always control spontaneous laughter.

Why does hearing people laugh make us laugh ourselves? Seeing and hearing someone in a hysterical fit of laughter, even though you don't know the person or the reason for their laughter can set you off laughing too.

Why would this be? The answer lies in the evolutionary function of laughter. "Laughter is social, it is not a solo activity," says Robert Provine.

He says, "We laugh 6 more times when in the company of another person than we do by ourselves, and 30 times more when we are in a group."

Laughter can become totally contagious. In 1962, in Tanzania, Africa, three school girls began to laugh uncontrollably. Within a few months, approximately 2/3 of the school's students had the contagious laughter symptoms and the school had to close.

The contagious laughter spread, and eventually affected a thousand people in Tanzania and neigboring country Uganda. There were no long-lasting after affects, but it shows how responsive people can react to another person's laughter.

The TV industry capitalized on the contagious laughter phenomena by introducing 'laugh tracks' to induce laughter in people watching their shows.

Researchers divide laughter in two distinct groups. The first includes spontaneous laughter. The second group includes less spontaneous laughter, fake laughter, nervous laughter, and social laughter that is not connected to humor.

The last 20 years have seen increased interest and application of 'laughter' as therapy in the belief that laughter stimulates healing. Since then the phrase 'laughter is good medicine' has become a widely used expression.

Mystery of laughter in daily life

Children under 5 years of age, tend to laugh an average of 400 times a day. For adults, however, it is a totally different story. A recent laughter study shows 64% of people smile less than 20 times a day at home, and 72% less than 20 times a day at work.

The International Congress of Humor found that laughter is down 66 -82% worldwide of what it was in the 1950's.

In my own research on 'Humor and Laughter,' and in speaking to audiences about these topics, there is one important factor I discovered. Uncontrollable laughter always happens from interaction with others.

You can get a chuckle from jokes you get in you emails, but it's notb the same as the belly jiggling, rib-tickling laughter you get from when you interact with others face to face.