The Psychology of Laughter - Why do people laugh?

By Rebecca Lewis on October 15, 2012

“There are two things that don’t have to mean anything – one is music, and the other is laughter.” -Immanuel Kant

Like most curious individuals, you have probably wondered, at one point or another, why people laugh. The science of laughter is among the least explored fields but many researchers believe that the purpose of laughing is linked to creating and strengthening human connections.

Laughter is an unconscious act

Even before people developed the use of language as a major form of communication, they have used non-verbal cues to express their true emotions. These include body language and non-verbal sounds. When they were frightened, ancient people scream. When they were angry, they yell and shout. And when they were in deep joy or happiness, they laugh.

An interesting fact about laughter is that it occurs naturally or unconsciously. You don’t have to think before you laugh. In most instances, you just find yourself laughing (unless otherwise you are in a theatre play or taping a film). This is why it is very hard to force yourself to laugh and you could tell the difference between a genuine and fake laughter.

Laughter as a social signal

Until today, there is limited knowledge about the exact brain mechanisms involved in laughter. What has been established by research is that it is triggered by various sensations and thoughts. Tickling is one of the most common stimuli of laughter.

Laughter is a social signal and not an egocentric expression of emotion. We sometimes laugh just by looking at a photo even though there is no really funny thing about it at all. We even sometimes find ourselves laughing because other people laugh. Take the case of the 1962 laughter outbreak in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). It all started with a group of young people laughing together but surprisingly, the laughter spreads pretty much like a virus, affecting about 1,000 people. The laughter outbreak lasted for about 2.5 years.

The fact that laughter is contagious means that you do not need any reason at all to laugh. This theory has been used in sitcoms and comedy shows. Just by laughing, the actors could influence their audience without doing funny activities on the set or at the stage.  

Laughter is not at all times about humour

Professor Robert Provine from the psychology and neuroscience department at the University of Maryland spent a decade studying over 2,000 cases of naturally-occurring laughter. He and his team found that contrary to folk wisdom, most laughter is not about humour rather personal relationships between people.

According to Prof Provine, laughter has a bonding function between the individuals of a group. In one of his experiments, he found that people are likely to laugh 30 more times when they are with others than alone. It’s often positive but sometimes, it can be negative too. For instance, people who “laugh at” others could be trying to cast them out from the group or insult them.

Laughter as a response to highly stressful situations

Have you ever laughed at yourself upon falling from a ladder or sliding on a slippery floor? Do you tend to laugh when you see other people in the same situation without any intention of mocking them whatsoever? Interestingly, research reveals that highly stressful situations often provoke laughter. In an experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram to study why some people blindly follow authority, he asked the subjects to deliver electric shocks to an unseen person (called the learner) to see how much they would deliver before refusing to continue. The unseen people weren’t really learners but researchers, and they weren’t really receiving electrical shocks. He was surprised to see some of the subjects nervously laughing upon hearing the learners scream.

According to V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and author of the “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness”, laughter has evolved as a signal to an individual that what appears to be threatening isn’t really threatening. It’s a defence mechanism – we tell ourselves that what we just encountered is not really frightening as it appears. For instance, a person who lost his limb might feel very depressed and even suicidal at first. But as time passes by, he learns to accept what happened and even find himself joking about it.

It was not Ramachandran who first considered laughter as a response to a passing danger. Even philosophers like John Morreall believed that it may have begun as a sign of shared relief from a potential threat.

Laughter as a weapon against despair

When we laugh at traumatic events in our life, we tend to believe that the situation isn’t that worse at all. And because of this, we think that we could easily move on to our life. This makes laughter a viable weapon against suffering and despair. Laughing helps set our own expectations that we will be alright soon and the suffering, whatever that is, will be over.

Laughter is good for both your physical and mental health. When you laugh, you release tension from your muscles. You lower down the production of stress hormone, as well as the risk of heart disease. A 2005 study by the Maryland Medical Centre found a link between laughter and increased blood flow.

Laughter also boosts the production of endorphin in the brain which makes us feel relieved after a stressful situation. In fact, it is currently used as a preventive adjunct therapy in diabetes. It also lowers bad cholesterol levels and reduces inflammation in the heart.

It is also one of the best ways to reconnect with other people, express care and empathy, and share joy with people we love. So why not laugh? After all, it’s for free!


Sources of this article:

A big mystery: Why do we laugh?

Beyond a joke: the truth about why we laugh



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