Laughter — what’s all about, really?


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2020 (1225 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Over the Christmas break I attended several social events at which there was lots of laughter.

Chatting about it later, I began wondering how we evolved to make this weird, spontaneous (sometimes embarrassing) staccato sound, often involving gasping for breath and tears.

It seems that laughter has always been a part of communities around the world, despite the development of sophisticated language and cultural differences, and babies often begin laughing when they’re just a few months old.

It turns out there’s a fair amount of psychological, neurological and philosophical research into laughing, much of which is attributed to Dr. Robert Provine’s research at the University of Maryland, and his book Laughter: a Scientific Investigation.

The obvious, superficial reason is that we laugh when we see something funny but apparently laughter goes much deeper than that. According to Dr. Provine’s research, only a small portion of laughs are caused by seeing or hearing something funny. The vast majority of laughter is more subtly intertwined in everyday conversation, such as in greetings or goodbyes.

As we’ve probably realized, if we think about it, laughter triggers unconscious positive feelings in other people. We usually laugh in a group — sharing a common experience — rather than alone; it’s contagious. Even just the sound of laughter — especially those uncontrolled belly laughs — can cause us to smile or laugh, even if we have no idea why. Just talk to the guy who invented the laugh track for sitcoms!

As laughing is an unconscious action it provides a very clear picture of how we’re really feeling (it’s hard to convincingly pretend to laugh). Since laughter eases tension and can foster a sense of unity by helping to strengthen relationships among people, through increased feelings of comfort and playfulness.

Apparently, laughter began millions of years ago, as form of communication before we could speak.

The theory is that it evolved as a survival mechanism to communicate to a group that what seems threatening is not, or has passed (think of being chased by a tiger), and sharing a sense of relief.
There’s some evidence that laughter therapy may assist hospital patients in healing, and in addition to helping to relieve stress, it has been shown to increase oxygen intake and release those feel-good endorphins.

Regardless of the medical benefits, or how strange it can make us look sometimes, I’m glad we can share a laugh once in a while, and that it’s such an important part of our community.

Nick Barnes is a community correspondent for Whyte Ridge.

Nick Barnes

Nick Barnes
Whyte Ridge community correspondent

Nick Barnes is a community correspondent for Whyte Ridge.

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