By Kate Hakala
What’s making you laugh right now? In my corner, it’s pretty consistently Louis C.K., misheard lyrics, and stories about wayward bodily functions.
But the truth is, scientifically, most of what you laugh at and why you laugh strangely has nothing to do with farts, Jon Stewart or banana peels — hilarious though they might be. It does, however, have a whole lot to do with your socialization.
A few weeks back, I wrote about why you cry, and we learned that crying is an evolutionary tactic to illicit sympathy and forge bonds — and surprise, surprise, scientists say laughing might be its own social survival mechanism. Much like crying, laughter is a global phenomenon in need of no translation. And while we can fake laugh or cry on command, the genuine tears and giggles only happen when we’re unconscious of the behavior.
All You Playas: It’s no coincidence that you feel sort of chimpish when snickering, because laughter is an evolutionary gift from the apes. All signs point to laughter being an instinctive rather than learned behavior. Robert Provine, leading giggle-expert at the University of Maryland, cites the origin of laughter as, “the sound of labored breathing from rough and tumble play,” first heard amongst chimpanzees. As we’ve developed, human play has transitioned largely from the physical to the cognitive, though our first hee-haws can still be heard through the labored breathing of games like tickling and tag. Laughing often signifies discovery, surprise, and social engagement. Because of the hilarity of novelty, babies laugh a reported 300 times a day compared to the average 20 times of a stick-in-the-mud grown adult. Once we grow up, giggling transitions from a reaction to playing with cereal into an interpretation of much more sophisticated cultural marvels like, you know, Tyra Banks.
The Anatomy of A Guffaw: Laughter is a rhythmic series of short vowel-like sounds repeated about every 210 milliseconds and is most often transcribed as “ha-ha”. It is a physiological response to humor and other social cues that includes gesturing and the production of sounds. When you hear something that delights you, an electrical wave moves through your cerebral cortex, and if the wave is negative, your body decides to send out a laugh. While doing so, your zygomatic major muscle lifts your upper lip, facial muscles contract, and the epiglottis half closes the larynx, giving you a gasp effect. Sometimes tear ducts are stimulated, and as your half-closed throat struggles for air, your face may turn red. This is the labored breathing part of your play. The circuit reaction certainly electrifies many parts of our noggins, but it’s also doing wonders for the rest of our bodies.
Drink the Kool-Aid: You know how they say laughter is the best medicine? Louis Pasteur might frown at that assessment, but giggling is great for the immune system. We most often laugh at things that stress us out, so it’s not pretzel logic that laughing reduces stress. As we laugh, the body produces Gamma-interferron, a disease-fighting protein, T-cells, which protect the immune system, and B-cells, which make antibodies. Laughing works like a feel-good angioplasty. It is amazing for our respiratory system, oxygenates the brain, increases our heart rate, and lowers our blood pressure. Maybe we should cancel our gym memberships and just invest in a box-set of “Arrested Development”. When we laugh we are exercising our diaphragm, abdominal, back, facial, leg, and arm muscles. According to some scientists, laughing 100 times is the physical equivalent to riding a bike for 15 minutes. Even a study of heart attack patients suggests that those with underperforming tickers were less likely to laugh in everyday life. So get in your yuk-yuks, because taking yourself too serious might just kill you.
What’s So Funny: So, how does an “LOL” give us an evolutionary stronghold? The singular mammalian practice of play develops skills for non-recreational activities. Laughing is like a dress rehearsal for life. It is often a vocalization that can change and shape other’s behaviors. Don’t feel too much pressure. Though you might bemoan the fact that you can’t tell a well-wrought joke, laughter is more often preceded by quotidian mundanities. In fact, research shows that only about 10 to 15% of all laughter follows speech that somehow resembles a joke. So what’s making us slap our knees, if not a well-delivered gag? Greetings, unexpected occurrences, and one’s own speech are common laugh-inducers. We laugh because we want to appear warm and engaged in social situations, and we laugh because it is a coping mechanism. And while sometimes browsing YouTube alone in bed has me at near peeing-my-pants levels of rapture, we’re all way more likely to laugh if we’re in a group, no matter what the stimuli. Laughter in social situations takes place about 30% more frequently than in individual cases.
Monkey Hear, Monkey Do: Laughter is a quick, automatic social behavior, so you can catch it quicker than herpes from a public toilet seat. Ever caught a round of the giggles from a nearby chortler? Hearing laughter often triggers the same neural circuits that get you cracking up and, thus, that’s why it can feel contagious. Sometimes a laughter rash can get serious. The Tanzanian laughter epidemic of 1962 arose with middle school girls that couldn’t stop cackling and eventually lead to the shutting down of schools in a laugh battle that lasted about a year. Gelotologists, the laugh experts, explain infectious laughter by stating that once an action is underway, it is hard to put an end to it. Often bouts of laughter can spread as they put at ease a group of people experiencing a particular period of stress or tension.
Cackle Control: What makes a good jokester? We’ve all seen the habitual churn of “Women Are Funny” think-pieces come to light, and while, indeed, women are just as funny as men, it seems that laughter is still quite gendered. Statistically, men are the laugh-getters and women are the laughers. Research shows women often seek men with a good sense of humor, while men seek women that will laugh at whatever they say. Social cues from archaic mating rituals? Perhaps. This connects to the fact that laughter forges trust in a companion and is often used by those in power to control the emotional climate of a group. Those in power also wield the funny. An effective boss has their subordinates laughing, connects to them, and even can use humor as a way of changing social behavior. Whether a person is being laughed with or laughed at can manipulate an entire group dynamic and determine who holds audience.
Please, soldier on, comedians. Laughter is essential. Chuckles are a social vocalization that bonds people together. Think of how many buds you wouldn’t have if you never shared a joke. Laughter develops the types of communities that make for a healthier, more solidified people. While our age, cultures, and regions will most likely determine what we laugh at, there is no denying that it is company that begets the most ha-ha’s. And while older humans are less likely to giggle than their tiny counterparts, it’s important for our hearts and minds that age doesn’t curb our cachinnation appreciation. Being in stitches is often the result of incongruous events or feelings of superiority, but it is most useful as a tool of relief. Human history is nothing if not a series of episodes of mounting terror followed by a round of hearty belly laughs. So, forgo your next depressive breakdown or coronary, and launch a preemptive strike of the viral, paper-ripping baby video variety. Go forth and giggle like your life depends on it; it does.
ExpliKate is a column running on Kate-book.com every other Monday at noon. It is written by the hyper-inquisitive Kate Hakala, who seeks to answer questions ranging from “What is kombucha?” to what you read above. Follow her on Twitter here.