Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Why Do We Laugh

We've all had the experience of laughing at something funny, but what exactly are humor and laughter? From a biological standpoint, laughter is a certain set of vocal sounds and physical movements occurring together (the biological study of laughter is called gelotology).

Laughter has also been shown to be beneficial to our general health. So, laughing is not only fun, but it's also good for you! That's lucky for us, since the average person laughs 17 times per day. That amounts to about one episode of laughter per waking hour!

Humor is a very complex topic. Realizing that something is funny involves many of the same areas of the brain as problem solving does. Humor also involves the frontal lobe (the part of the brain that allows us to experience social emotions).

Brain activity then spreads to the occipital lobe, which processes signals. Finally, the motor (i.e. movement) portions of our brain produce signals to bring about the physical movements associated with laughter.

Researchers have found that humor falls under 3 main categories:

  1. Surprise: something strikes us as funny when it is contrary to what we expected to happen. Whenever someone starts a sentence, or an action, our brains predict what will follow. So, when a comedian sets up a joke, we think we know where the story is headed, but the punch-line surprises us, and so our brain interprets that as being funny.
  2. Feeling superior: as much as we don't like to admit it, sometimes we laugh at others. mistakes or misfortune. This is what is commonly known as "making fun of someone." This humor is the result of our enjoying the emotion of feeling superior to the person we are laughing at. This type of humor is not polite and is not particularly kind either, so we often train ourselves not to indulge in it.
  3. Relief: humans laugh at stressful situations as a way to cope with stress and anger. For example, if you're walking to school without an umbrella, and it starts to rain, you may feel frustrated or angry, but you will most likely chuckle at the situation. "Nervous laughter" also falls under this category since it serves to reduce tension in social settings.

Little Lion Experiment:

Laughter is a very important part of our social interactions. Studies have shown that people are much more likely to laugh at something funny when they are with other people than when they are alone. This explains why watching a comedy in your living room just doesn't live up to the experience of watching the same movie in a crowded movie theater.

For a week, keep a tally of how many times per day you laugh. Record whether you were alone or whether you were with other people each time you laughed.

Estimate how many waking hours (i.e. hours when you weren't asleep) you spent alone. Divide the number of times you laughed alone by the number of hours you were alone. This will give your rate of solitary laughter (how many times per hour you laughed alone).

Then, divide the number of times you laughed with other people by the number of hours you spent with other people. This will give your rate of social laughter (how many times per hour you laughed with other people).

Compare your rate of solitary laughter with your rate of social laughter.