We live in a funny world. There are days in which we laugh from the joy of accomplishing extraordinary feats, to instants of belting out from subtle mishaps, to moments of uproarious crying at a priceless joke, to just painfully laughing at the misfortunes of a shitty day.
But, no matter what kind of situation you’re in, laughter is the best friend that slaps you in the face to wake you up then hugs you in that same moment of hysteria. It’s the pre-language social groundwork for communicating our most soulful reactions, understood universally by all.
Evolution of Laughter: Why do we laugh?
Like most of us (including myself), chuckling, laughing, and smiling can be seemingly simple tasks. Yet, scientifically, laughter has very complex social contexts and is even classified into different types.
1. Duchenne Smile/Laugh
This is the unconscious, stomach-aching, “ROFL”, “HAHAHAHAHAHA”, face-reddening type of genuine laughter.
19th century neurologist, Guillaume Duchenne (I know, freaking awesome name), determined there were two distinct types of smiles: the one named after himself, and the one not like the one named after himself. A Duchenne smile involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which engages the muscles that lift the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and the puffy bags under our eyes).
This is the type of smile/laughter that is strongly associated with positive emotion and engages are brains to have an “ah-ha!” moment, initiating our learning/attention pathways. Which makes sense, right? Considering we are much more attentive (and attracted) to people that execute genuine humor, along with a more vivid memory of what was said. This ancient trigger dates back millions of years in primates who used this behavior as a tool to play, learn, and explore amongst their peers.
That being said, much has evolved in human behavior since the time of our furry ancestors, making way for another type of smile/laughter that sadly does NOT resemble anything funny.
2. Non-Duchenne Smile/Laugh
Understandably, Duchenne classified this smile/laugh as being dis-genuine and “fake”. I prefer the modern-day expression: the “Botox smile.” The reason being that only the zygomatic major muscle is activated, keeping the cheeks and crow’s feet perfectly intact.
So, the next time you tell a hilarious joke and you notice ONLY the zygomatic muscle is being used…call them out…or just never tell that joke again.
However, this voluntary eremitic smirk is not necessarily a bad thing. More often than not, we use this tactic as a show of politeness. In an age where being aloof in a social setting is more regarded with negative consequences, social culture has taken to utilize a mutually beneficial interaction: the “fake” chuckle. As renowned sidewalk neuroscientist, Robert Provine, once said, “it is a mimicked laughter for the purpose of manipulating and gathering attention to the topic; a form of beneficial social interaction.”
After spending a decade observing laughter all over the world (Laugher: A Scientific Investigation), Dr. Provine, discovered that less than 20% of real-world laughter incidents had anything to do with something resembling humor. In fact, he discovered that the majority (80-90%) of laughter incidents was due to an elicit response to whimsical, mundane social commentary, such as “I’ll see you later!” or “Look at this guy!”
Here’s the cream of the crop of the study: 46% of the time the person talking was more likely to chuckle at what they were saying than the person listening (if they were).
Hence, Provine concluded through his observations, that laughter was not just an inherent genetic gift, but also a form of communication.
It’s no coincidence that fits of laughter tend to have a domino effect in larger groups. In a study out of the University of College London, neuroscientists found that specific sound, such as laughter and chuckling are registered in our minds as positive sounds. While, on the other hand, screaming and wailing are indicative of negative circumstances.
All of these sounds activate responses in the premotor cortical region, which is responsible for controlling facial muscles to move in a way that correlates to the type of sound. For example, in parenting, it is genetic for a mother and father to react to a babies screaming by showing facial expressions of worry and concern. This is the brain’s way of alerting parents that there may be a threat. In the case of positive sounds, like laughter, there is a much stronger behavioral response in the brain, inciting a mirroring cue amongst others to laugh. This social precursor is meant to dispel tense situations/alleviate any notion of a threat, as well as prime strong social bonds amongst other individuals.
Food for thought: Why do you think comedians who perform in front of larger crowds are thought to be funnier?
Laugh at my Pain
Comedian Kevin Hart is notorious for creating humor out of unanimously crappy situations. And as he likes to say:
“Don’t laugh, this is some serious shit.”
Well, it should come as no surprise that as a species we thrive on employing laughter as a weapon against overwhelming, traumatic events. Essentially, this is a “matured” defense mechanism that allows us to believe whatever unfortunate event is happening isn’t as bad as it seems; or at least we are left to believe we’ll move through it. Neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, elucidates in his book, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, that laughter evolved as a notification to ourselves and to those around us that imminent threat is not actually there.
Dr. Alex Wickerman’s “Why We Laugh”, brilliantly exemplifies the necessary means for which a resuscitated laugh can slap away our suffering and despair, further manifesting into a wanderlust of “high-life condition.”
Laugh at your Pain
We’ve all laughed at someone falling from having too much to drink, or flailing across the rubber synthetic track while slowly jogging the mile in P.E. But, why do we find it funny, even when we KNOW the situation could be serious and we don’t “intend” to laugh?
Dr. William Fry, psychiatrist and laughter specialist at Stanford University, explains it’s because of two reasons:
- “Play Frame”
“Play frame” is a psychological term that basically means your brain is putting a real-life event into a non-serious context. Which is why you won’t laugh at someone who has the misfortune of falling down a 10-story building vs. someone who trips on the sidewalk.
The other piece to the puzzle is incongruity, which encompasses the idea that one will laugh at something unexpected as long as it follows the rules of a “play frame”.
Here’s what’s really interesting:
The neurons that fire as a result of witnessing such hilarious events are called mirror neurons, which happen to be the same neurons that are highly active during feelings of empathy and imitation. Fry goes on to explain that part of the reason why we find the act of someone tripping so entertaining is because we “imitate” the same scenario happening to us in our minds. Sort of like a “ghost” reality.
Tickling people can be incredibly rewarding. Being tickled…not so much.
The sensation of being tickled originates on the top layer of the epidermis (skin), sending pressure signals to the hypothalamus and anterior cingulate gyrus, regions of the brain that control both pleasurable and painful experiences. This is why you laugh, but also feel uncomfortably violated at the same time.
Evolutionary biologists believe that laughing when being tickled is an innate defense mechanism to thwart predators by expressing submission to an aggressor. It’s kind of like telling someone who wants to fight you, “Hey, are those the new Jordans?” and they gleefully respond, “Yea, man. Thanks for noticing!” Pretty sure that never happens, but I hope you can appreciate my glimmering attempt at providing an adequate analogy.
So, why can’t we tickle ourselves?
The cerebellum (the most posterior region of the brain which controls balance and refined motor skills) already knows from the intent of self-tickling that you will tickle yourself, so it doesn’t waste time on analyzing the physical sensory information of being lightly touched. Basically, you can’t fool yourself…which we are all very thankful for, because no one would ever continuously surprise tickle themselves (also considering how ridiculous that would look).
In an fMRI study by Wattendorf et. al (2012), neuroscientists wanted to specifically target which region of the brain is involved with the laughter associated with tickling, and if the same region is involved for involuntary and voluntary laughter. What they found was the hypothalamus (which controls heart rate accompanied by genuine laughter) and amygdala (which controls emotions) are exclusively excited when subjects unconsciously laughed and forcibly laughed during tickling behavior.
Patients who develop cysts or lesions in specific regions of the hypothalamus have high moods and suddenly burst into constant laughter. So, be wary of that.
Fun Fact: Gorillas and mice laugh like us when they’re tickled too, but they giggle at 50kHz, which is out of our audio range. I know, bummer...
Laughter is our oldest language. It’s a gift that every person on the planet, regardless of culture, disability, and religion is born with. Why not utilize it in every moment when it’s therapeutic powers are unveiled in every social context. And benefits are not just emotional, but physiological too:
- Stronger immune system
- Relieves pain by introducing natural painkillers into the body
- Helps relax muscles and relieve stressful/difficult situations
- Increases personal satisfaction and a healthy outlook on life and the people around you
- A better method of getting a 6-pack
- 15 minutes of laughter = 30 minutes of crunches
- As good as the benefits of sleep
- 15 minutes of laughter = same health benefits as 2 hours of sleep
Just practicing the act of smiling, even when your emotions contradict happiness or mirth, will make you happy! The micro muscles in your face are directly linked to neurons and pathways in your brain that signal neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) to release happy chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Virtually, you can trick your brain into being happy by simply forcing a smile, although I know it’s easier said than done. But, try it…maybe you’ll make it a habit.
When it comes to love, evoking laugher is one of the strongest social cues towards hooking in a mate. Women and men equally seek a partner that can make them naturally laugh and smile. It exudes simultaneous behaviors of confidence, vulnerability, affability, cooperation, deep understanding (even in pain), and obnoxiousness.
Screw the inappropriateness of laughing in serious circumstances and embrace the fact that laughter is the next step forward in all setbacks. Not only can we consciously soothe our own experiences of adversity, but we can encourage others to push through it as well.
Because at the end of the day, how we act, react, and interact IS the domino effect for happy living…so laugh with it.