To scientists, laughter is no joke -- it's serious

Mar 31, 2010 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer

(AP) -- So a scientist walks into a shopping mall to watch people laugh.

There's no punchline. is a serious scientific subject, one that researchers are still trying to figure out.

Laughing is primal, our first way of communicating. Apes laugh. So do dogs and rats. Babies laugh long before they speak. No one teaches you how to laugh. You just do. And often you laugh involuntarily, in a specific rhythm and in certain spots in conversation.

You may laugh at a prank on April Fools' Day. But surprisingly, only 10 to 15 percent of laughter is the result of someone making a joke, said Baltimore neuroscientist Robert Provine, who has studied laughter for decades. Laughter is mostly about social responses rather than reaction to a joke.

"Laughter above all else is a social thing," Provine said. "The requirement for laughter is another person."

Over the years, Provine, a professor with the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has boiled laughter down to its basics.

"All language groups laugh `ha-ha-ha' basically the same way," he said. "Whether you speak Mandarin, French or English, everyone will understand laughter. ... There's a pattern generator in our brain that produces this sound."

Each "ha" is about one-15th of a second, repeated every fifth of a second, he said. Laugh faster or slower than that and it sounds more like panting or something else.

Deaf people laugh without hearing, and people on cell phones laugh without seeing, illustrating that laughter isn't dependent on a single sense but on social interactions, said Provine, author of the book "Laughter: A ."

"It's joy, it's positive engagement with life," said Jaak Panksepp, a Bowling Green University psychology professor. "It's deeply social."

And it's not just a people thing either. Chimps tickle each other and even laugh when another pretends to tickle them.

"That's my candidate for the most ancient joke," Provine said. "It's a feigned tickle. That's primal humor."

Panksepp studies rats that laugh when he tickles them. Sound silly? It's on YouTube and in scientific journals, a funny pairing of proofs when you think about.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

It turns out rats love to be tickled. They return again and again to the hands of researchers tickling them, Panksepp's video shows.

By studying rats, Panksepp and other scientists can figure out what's going on in the brain during laughter. And it holds promise for human ills.

Northwestern University biomedical engineering professor Jeffrey Burgdorf has found that laughter in rats produces an insulin-like growth factor chemical that acts as an antidepressant and anxiety-reducer. He thinks the same thing probably happens in humans, too. This would give doctors a new chemical target in the brain in their effort to develop drugs that fight depression and anxiety in people.

Even so, laughter itself hasn't been proven to be the best medicine, experts said.

Dr. Margaret Stuber, a psychiatry professor at University of California Los Angeles Medical School, studied whether laughter helped patients. She found that distraction and mood improvement helped, but she could not find a benefit for laughter alone.

"No study has shown that laughter produces a direct health benefit," Provine said, largely because it's hard to separate laughter from just good feelings. But he thinks it doesn't really matter: "Isn't the fact that laughter feels good when you do it, isn't that enough?"

While studying laughter is serious work to researchers, it apparently sounds like a silly topic when they're seeking research grants. For that reason, Northwestern's Burgdorf avoids the word "laughter." He calls it "positive emotional response."

Panksepp understands, saying: "There's no funding in fun research."

Explore further: Watching 3-D videos of trees helps people recover from stress

More information: Robert Provine's site: http://www.umbc.edu/psyc/faculty/provine/index.html

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User comments : 10

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THoKling
3 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2010
Here's an idea: laughter is a defensive response to a stimulus that can be potentially feared or disruptive. In essence, laughter is akin to the bark of a dog, and the reason for it depends upon how the beast perceives what is causing the potential threat.

When someone tells a joke, it is typically ridiculous or otherwise designed to catch someone off guard. An instinctive response seems a perfect match and explanation for laughter.
eldowan
not rated yet Mar 31, 2010
In essence, laughter is akin to the bark of a dog, and the reason for it depends upon how the beast perceives what is causing the potential threat.

If a dog laughs, as the article says, then why would laughter be akin to a bark?

It would seem to me that a bark would be the vocal communication -- our talking.
jcettison
not rated yet Mar 31, 2010
Here's an idea: laughter is a defensive response to a stimulus that can be potentially feared or disruptive. In essence, laughter is akin to the bark of a dog, and the reason for it depends upon how the beast perceives what is causing the potential threat.

When someone tells a joke, it is typically ridiculous or otherwise designed to catch someone off guard. An instinctive response seems a perfect match and explanation for laughter.


I had been under the impression that laughter was widely accepted as a positive emotional response to a potentially threatening stimuli. We laugh when we're nervous, when vital and sensitive regions are touched lightly, sometimes when we're devastatingly saddened or afraid. I'd like to hear more in depth discussion on this topic.
Parsec
5 / 5 (1) Mar 31, 2010
"The requirement for laughter is another person."


I may be in deep psychological dodo. I often laugh at myself when I am alone.

I haven't slipped to where I tell myself jokes however.

Usually its a remembered moment, or deep acknowledgement of an unanticipated personal screwup mechanism.

Is that wrong?
gennoveus
not rated yet Mar 31, 2010
Usually its a remembered moment, or deep acknowledgement of an unanticipated personal screwup mechanism.

Is that wrong?


Well remembering something someone else did still involves someone else.

When laughing at you own mistakes, maybe you are laughing at yourself from the third person - that is, in your mind you are treating yourself as someone else. Or maybe you are imaging what the situation would have looked like from someone else's point of view?
Lordjavathe3rd
not rated yet Mar 31, 2010
You're on the right track gennoveus. I just wish psychologists where more intelligent. All you need is a little theory, a little deductive logic, and a little intelligence. I wonder how many of those three they are missing.
HealingMindN
not rated yet Mar 31, 2010
Panksepp wants to fund research where he can hire beautiful women and tickle them.
jgelt
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2010
Here's funny: whoever invents a way to stab someone in the face over the internet will become wealthy beyond dreams.

;)
illuminated1
not rated yet Apr 05, 2010
I am interested in how laughter is used to socialize people and lead them to form a pre-designated opinion.
I believe the Delphi technique employs this tactic. Consider how pundits will use ridicule as a form of rhetoric or the conditioned response one has at the mention of tin-foil hats or nazis on the moon.
doctorkim
Apr 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
denijane
not rated yet Apr 17, 2010
@ THoKling - Did you read the article? It's not about hearing a JOKE! It's a reaction to another person, usually very positive. Of course, people may laugh when nervous to try to either pretend they are not nervous or to distract themselves from their problems, but they do not laugh AS A REACTION to nervousness.

And laughter is used in meditations, in which cases, it's not induced by other person, nor it's a reaction to a threat. It's pure joy.

It's kind of pervert to consider laughter, connected with threats response. Then love is what? Response to fear of possible rape or loss of control?

Anyway, the article is VERY interesting. I didn't know animals can laugh. Too bad I can't hear my dog laughing :)